As night fell and clashes continued, Lebanese army officers released a statement threatening to open fire on any armed groups that failed to withdraw from the streets of the port city, even as fighting closed Lebanon’s north-south highway through Sidon and even expanded to its seaside area.
One supporter of Assir, who attends his Bilal bin Rabah Mosque, said by phone that Assir’s supporters wouldn’t attack the army.
"We are not against the Lebanese army. Prayer is our weapon today," he said, although fighting continued past nightfall.
Although a predominately Shiite organization, Hezbollah has trained and funded a series of nonsectarian military units of supporters in Sunni and Christian areas in order to maintain security and influence outside of its traditional Shiite villages and neighborhoods. These offices – widely considered direct wings of the group – often have come under attack in Sunni areas as neighborhoods become increasingly polarized against Hezbollah and Lebanon’s large Shiite population.
In a similar incident in May of last year, three people were killed and nearly a dozen wounded after the residents of a Sunni neighborhood in Beirut attacked the offices of a small group aligned with Hezbollah, forcing the group to send a special forces unit into the area to evacuate the office. Sunni groups have clashed regularly with Shiite villages in the northern Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border as tensions between the two communities mount over the civil war in Syria, where nearly 100,000 people have been reported killed. Tit-for-tat shootings and kidnapping in Bekaa have become regular occurrences but direct violence between Sunnis and Shiites has been rare in most Lebanese cities.
Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, is the scene of regular clashes, however, including a wave of violence last month that killed nearly 30 people and wounded about 100.