News Column

Lebanon Commandos Seize Mosque

June 24, 2013

Weedah Hamzah, dpa

Lebanese commandos took control of a Sidon mosque Monday where a radical Sunni cleric was holed up after clashes between the army and his followers left 16 soldiers dead.

Soldiers backed by tanks fought their way into the complex of the Bilal bin Rabah mosque on the second day of clashes with followers of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a prominent supporter of rebels in neighbouring Syria.

Some media reports said that al-Assir escaped from the complex on Monday afternoon and that 30 to 40 of his followers were killed in the clashes in the district of Abra in the southern port city.

The Lebanese Red Cross confirmed to dpa that they have removed at least 20 bodies from areas near the mosque.

"Lebanese army troops have taken control of the Abra region and the mosque which was under the control of Sheikh al-Assir and our troops are now cleaning few pockets of resistance at the outskirts of Abra," an army officer in Sidon said, requesting anonymity.

Army soldiers were seen escorting dozens of bearded men, some wearing army fatigues and black shirts, and loading them in trucks shortly after they took control of the area of Abra.

An officer said 100 men were arrested.

The clashes started on Sunday when al-Assir's supporters killed three soldiers at an army checkpoint where a vehicle belonging to his followers had been stopped.

More than 100 civilians have been injured, the army said.

Tensions in Abra began in recent weeks when al-Assir attacked the Shiite movement Hezbollah, whose militants are fighting in Syria alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Around fifty civilians, mainly elderly women and children, were evacuated by Lebanese army tanks from areas near the Abra region after sunset.

The Syrian uprising, which started in 2011, has exacerbated divisions in Lebanon between those supporting President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels seeking to oust him.

Sunnis in Lebanon are hostile to al-Assad, whom they blame for the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, while the main Shiite groups, Hezbollah and Amal, support the Syrian president.

The recurrent clashes have raised fears of a return to the civil war which tore Lebanon apart from 1975 to 1990.

"The streets are boiling with hatred, especially between Sunnis and Shiites," said Hilal Bizzri, a resident of Sidon. "This time Muslims will not be fighting Christians, but they will be fighting each other."

In the northern port city of Tripoli, another mainly Sunni city, masked gunmen caused panic in the streets when they fired in the air, demanding people to close their shops and calling for "jihad" in support of al-Assir.

In Beirut, young men blocked roads with burning tires in mainly Sunni neighborhoods in solidarity with al-Assir. The Lebanese army has sent troops to those areas.

Caretaker Prime Minister Nagib Mikati and Premier-designate Tamam Salam issued a statement late Monday rejecting "any attack on the army."

The Lebanese government has declared Tuesday a day of mourning for the soldiers who were killed in Sidon clashes.

In Cairo, the Arab League condemned attacks against the Lebanese army and called on all parties to avoid strife.

Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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