Lebanese troops took control Monday of a complex where supporters of a radical Salafist imam were holed during two days of bloody battles that began on Sunday, leaving at least 16 soldiers dead near Lebanon’s third-largest city of Sidon.
Lebanese troops seized control on Monday of the headquarters of a radical Sunni sheikh whose supporters battled the army for two days, killing 16 soldiers, an AFP correspondent reported.
The whereabouts of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir himself were not immediately known after troops entered the complex in Abra, near the southern city of Sidon, the correspondent reported.
The fighting, linked to rising sectarian tensions fanned by the conflict in neighbouring Syria, erupted on Sunday on the outskirts of Sidon and intensified on Monday.
The AFP journalist saw bodies on the ground, some of them scorched.
Troops said it was unsafe to remove them for fear they may have been booby-trapped.
A military source in Sidon said the army found "dozens of bodies of armed men, wearing military fatigues with their weapons lying nearby".
The army "has arrested dozens of people suspected of loyalty to Assir", the source added.
Ambulances took 94 wounded to hospital in the space of 24 hours, Red Cross operations chief Georges Kettani told AFP.
Weapons, including rocket launchers and machineguns, lay abandoned inside the cleric's headquarters, along with military uniforms.
Some of the flats in the complex were still burning as troops moved in.
The area sustained heavy damage in two days of fighting that broke out after Assir's supporters attacked a checkpoint.
Virtually unknown until two years ago, Assir has capitalised on Sunni resentment against the Shiite Hezbollah movement's intervention alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces against the mainly Sunni rebels.
Sixteen troops were killed in the two-day battle with his forces, among them two officers, the army said.
Lebanon on edge: Hezbollah and the Syrian spillover (part 2)
According to the army, the clashes erupted after Assir supporters attacked a checkpoint "for no reason".
A meeting of political, military and security chiefs pledged on Monday that the army would fight until it "finishes with" Assir as a military judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
His brother Amjad had told AFP that "Sheikh Assir will stay in the mosque until the last drop of blood" but there was no immediate word late on Monday on his whereabouts.
Sunni leaders called on the army to work "fairly and thoroughly" to disarm all armed groups in Lebanon, including Hezbollah as well as Sunni groups like Assir's.
The Sunni leaders said they supported the army's operation against Assir.
But they added that the law "needs to apply to all Lebanese equally. The state's institutions are responsible for all Lebanese... without distinction".
Assir has accused the army of siding with Hezbollah and of conniving in its intervention in Syria.
He has encouraged his own followers to head to Syria to fight alongside the rebels against Assad's forces and Hezbollah.
The violence in Sidon followed a clash between Assir's supporters and Hezbollah supporters last week in which one person was killed.
The latest bloodshed prompted a military judge to issue warrants for the arrest of the cleric and 123 of his supporters.
On Sunday, Assir issued a video message saying he was being "attacked" by the military, which he called "sectarian" and accused of supporting Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.
He urged soldiers to desert and protesters to block streets, a call heeded by some in the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, the scene of repeated fighting between supporters and opponents of the Damascus government.
An AFP correspondent said masked gunmen deployed in Nur Square in the city centre, blocking roads with burning tyres before throwing several hand grenades and causing panic.
Elsewhere in the city, an army post was set alight near the flashpoint district of Bab el-Tebbaneh, a security source said.
Date created : 2013-06-24