JNN 26 June 2013 Beirut : Three Lebanese army officers and a soldier were killed on Sunday in a clash with supporters of a radical Wahabi sheikh opposed to the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, an army statement said.
“An armed group loyal to Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir attacked, for no reason, a Lebanese army checkpoint in the village of Abra” on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, the military said.
“Two officers and a soldier were killed, while several others were wounded. Several military vehicles were damaged,” the statement added, updating the army’s earlier toll of two dead.
The clash broke out when Assir’s supporters surrounded an army checkpoint in Abra, where a vehicle transporting other supporters of the Wahabi cleric had been stopped, a security source told AFP earlier.
“After the armed men attacked (the army) with gunfire” the army fired back, the source added.
An AFP journalist reported that explosions were heard two kilometers (more than a mile) away.
The correspondent saw civilians fleeing the fighting, both by car and on foot.
Businesses in Abra closed for the day because of the raging gunfire.
“The shells are raining down on us, and there is intense gunfire,” a witness told AFP by telephone.
More troops deployed to the area as the clashes raged through the afternoon.
The controversial Wahabi sheikh called on his supporters last week to fire on apartments in Abra that he says house Hezbollah members.
Abra is home to a mosque where Assir leads the main weekly prayers on Fridays. The sheikh believes Hezbollah uses the Abra apartments to keep him under surveillance.
His supporters clashed with Hezbollah in Abra last week in fighting that left one man dead.
Assir was unknown until around two years ago, when he rose to prominence over his radical opposition to Hezbollah and its ally, the Damascus regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria-related tensions have soared in Lebanon, deepening sectarian rifts between Sunnis and Shiites.
Shiite Hezbollah supports Assad’s regime, while the Wahabi-dominated opposition backs the terrorist fighting it.
During Sunday’s fighting, Assir distributed a video message via mobile phone addressed to his supporters.
“We are being attacked by the Lebanese army,” Assir said, describing the military as “sectarian” and accusing it of supporting Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.
“I call on everyone… to cut off roads and to all honorable soldiers, Sunni and non-Sunni, to quit the army immediately,” Assir said in the message.
He urged supporters across Lebanon to flock to Abra “to help defend our religion, our honor and our women.”
Al Assir’s Profile
It was approximately a year ago when Salafi Wahabi Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and his followers blocked a main road leading to southern Lebanon for a month and half. This was but one step in his larger plan to build a militia to face down Hezbollah in the south.
The sheikh began his militarization campaign by recruiting young Lebanese using anti-Shia slogans. Since then, he has attracted a hodgepodge of local Lebanese, Palestinian refugees, and Syrians to his cause.
Once established in southern Lebanon, he visited other spots in Lebanon like Ersal and Tripoli, hoping to build a national profile for his movement and to establish a network of like-minded allies.
Throughout this period, he benefitted from Gulf funding – by way of born-again singer Fadl Shaker – in addition to some local sources. The money was used to buy weapons from Saida’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. Some sources even claim that he received arms from March 14.
Close followers of the sheikh’s activities say that he has received training and logistical support from official quarters, allowing them to move freely in the city. Through these official connections, Assir is also privy to detailed information about the residential areas adjacent to his mosque.
More mainstream Sunni political forces like the Future Movement and al-Jamaa al-Islamiya (Lebanon’s Muslim Brotherhood) also provided the radical cleric with the necessary political cover to conduct his armed forays in the city.
Saida security sources say that Assir’s armed operation in the city on Tuesday, in which he deployed around 300 fighters, was an attempt to display his growing military prowess.Fighter training took place in a number of areas near Saidi, as well as the North, until Assir established a security compound centered around his mosque in the Saida district of Abra.
Army Operation Against the Terrorist
Lebanese commandos took control of a Sidon mosque Monday where the radical Wahabi 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.
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.