Lebanese troops seize headquarters of radical cleric

AFP, SIDON, Lebanon

Wed, Jun 26, 2013 - Page 6

Lebanese troops have seized control of the headquarters of a radical Sunni sheikh whose supporters battled the army for two days, killing 16 soldiers.

Yesterday was designated a day of national mourning in Lebanon, as the search continued for Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir who was not found when troops entered the complex in Abra, near the southern city of Sidon.

The deadly fighting, linked to rising sectarian tensions fanned by the conflict in neighboring Syria, erupted on Sunday on the outskirts of Sidon and intensified on Monday.

An Agence France-Presse reporter on Monday 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 said.

Weapons, including rocket launchers and machine guns, lay abandoned inside the cleric’s headquarters, along with military uniforms.

Some of the apartments 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.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday condemned the attacks on the Lebanese armed forces. He appealed to Lebanon’s armed forces to remain loyal to President Michel Sleiman, as sectarian tensions fueled by the Syrian conflict mount.

Ban stressed “that all in Lebanon should fully respect the authority of the state,” a UN spokesman said.

Virtually unknown until two years ago, Assir has capitalized 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.

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 said 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.