Lebanese army clashes with followers of radical Sunni clerk

On June 25, Lebanese security officials say a roadside bomb has exploded on the highway linking Beirut with Damascus. The bomb comes a day after heavy fighting between the army and militia’s of the radical Sunni clerk Ahmed al-Assir in the northern coastal town Sidon. Each side accuses the other of provoking the initial fighting. According to security forces 16 soldiers died in the fighting and at least 20 supporters of Assir were killed. Dozens are said to have been arrested. The fate of Assir is still unknown.

Sectarian divide
The fighting started yesterday after Assir accused the army of backing the Shia militant group Hezbollah. He posted a video online, saying he was under attack of the army, and called for Sunni soldiers to defect. He lambasted the armed forces as working under the command of Hezbollah and Iran, and urged Sunnis to block roads in solidarity.

Sectarian tensions between Shiite en Sunni Muslims in the northern part of Lebanon have been rising, after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah confirmed that the group sends fighters in support of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Lebanese army said clashes broke out after security forces detained one of Assir’s followers. His supporters retaliated by opening fire on a military checkpoint. Army commanders pledged to defeat Assirs forces.

‘Cold blooded and deliberate attack’
The fighting might signal a dangerous escalation of the ethnic tension in the country, as the army, which is seen as glue that holds together the sectarian divide, now itself is the target of violence. Assir has clashed before with militant fighters of Hezbollah, but the direct fighting with the army takes the confrontation to a new level.

The army stated: ‘What has happened in Sidon went beyond all expectations. The army was targeted in a cold blooded and deliberate attack.’

Lebanon’s grand Mufti, Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, condemned the violence, stating that the use of force against the Lebanese military has never been justified.

 

Sources: Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, NY Times, NBC, Washington Post, Guardian

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