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Middle east

Sidon: Lebanon's new hotbed of Sunni-Shiite tension

Text by Marc DAOU

Latest update : 2013-06-24

For the last week, the Lebanese city of Sidon has been gripped by religious tensions exacerbated by the Syrian crisis. On Sunday, clashes broke out between the Lebanese army and supporters of a radical Salafist imam. Twelve soldiers were killed.

The security situation in Lebanon is looking fragile these days, as the country sees a spike in violent incidents linked to the conflict in Syria.

Until recently, the clashes pitting mainly Shiite supporters of the Syrian regime against its largely Sunni opponents were localised along the Syria-Lebanon border: in Bekaa (in the east), Akkar (north) and Tripoli (north), the second largest Lebanese city.

But these days, tensions have spilled over into several regions of the country.

Over the past week, the situation has notably deteriorated in Sidon, the capital of southern Lebanon, a Sunni bastion and the country’s third biggest city.

On Sunday, June 23 violent clashes broke out in the neighbourhood of Abra – near the Bilal bin Rabah mosque – between the Lebanese army and supporters of Salafist cleric Ahmed al-Assir. Twleve soldiers were killed, Lebanese news outlets reported.

It was just the latest burst of violence involving Assir. Hezbollah fighters and supporters of the cleric faced off in a suburb of Sidon on June 18, resulting in one dead and several injured. Several months earlier, in November, an armed altercation transpired between members of Hezbollah and followers of Assir, openly hostile toward the powerful Shiite movement. Three people were killed and seven injured in the fighting.

In the wake of that clash, the Salafist imam threatened “armed action” against Hezbollah, which he qualified as “the party of Iran”, in reference to Tehran’s support of the group.

In April, the cleric called for jihad in Syria to defend Sunnis, in reaction to Hezbollah’s involvement in backing Syria’s army.

‘The army decided to shoot at any armed individual’

“The defiant tone used by Hezbollah leaders to justify their intervention in Syria, openly recognised and perceived as an intolerable provocation by radical Sunnis, as well as the vehement verbal attacks by radical Sunnis and Assir on Hezbollah, contribute to the sectarian tensions in Lebanon,” offered a Lebanese security source, who wished to remain anonymous.

“If the situation is under control for the moment, the slightest incident or spark could have catastrophic consequences in the country, as the Syrian conflict has dramatically exacerbated the animosity and resentment between these two communities in certain regions of Lebanon,” the source said.

Lebanese authorities are trying to put out the fire. President Michel Sleiman has been urging neutrality regarding the conflict in Syria, but that policy was undermined both by Hezbollah’s direct support of the Syrian regime and by the logistical aid that Sunni activists have given to the Syrian rebels. Recently, Sleiman called for Hezbollah to cease its activity in Syria, saying that its involvement in the Syrian conflict was creating tensions in Lebanon.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel declared that “Sidon will not be another hot spot inflamed by the war in Syria”. According to French-language Lebanese daily L’Orient-Le-Jour, Charbel indicated that discussions were underway to protect the region from further discord.

“The army has decided to shoot at any armed individual,” he nevertheless warned.

That was before Sunday’s clashes.

Date created : 2013-06-24

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