At least 6 killed in Lebanon battle


McClatchy Foreign Staff

At least six Lebanese soldiers were killed Sunday in a fierce clash with followers of a radical Sunni Muslim cleric in the southern city of Sidon as Lebanon’s security continues to deteriorate due to sectarian tensions over Hezbollah’s involvement in neighboring Syria’s civil war.

The battle between the Lebanese Armed Forces and followers of Sheikh Ahmad al Assir was apparently sparked by an attempted arrest of one of the cleric’s bodyguards; the fighting eventually drew at least the limited involvement of Hezbollah fighters based on a nearby mountainside who used mortars and recoilless rifles to support the attack by LAF commandos.

An unknown number of gunmen and civilians were killed and wounded. Local media reports indicate that Assir’s brother might have been a casualty. As night fell, the LAF reported at least 20 of its soldiers had been wounded and that a major operation was underway to put an end to both the fighting and Assir’s hold over the Abra neighborhood of Sidon. Supporters of Assir’s anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syrian regime stances were taking to the streets throughout Lebanon to block traffic and protest.

The neighboring civil war in Syria -- as well as Hezbollah’s strong military and political support for the embattled regime of Bashar Assad -- have left much of Lebanon in political turmoil as many Lebanese support the predominately Sunni Muslim rebels and oppose Shiite Muslim Hezbollah’s involvement. But with Lebanon’s powerful and numerous Shiite Muslim community firmly supporting the Hezbollah, which is widely considered the most effective military force in Lebanon, a political stalemate over involvement has slowly turned more violent as both sides refuse to yield.

Fighting began Sunday after followers of Assir, who has called for a jihad against both Hezbollah and its allies in neighboring Syria, claimed the Lebanese Army attempted to arrest members of the group without provocation. The neighborhood of Abra, which saw heavy fighting last Tuesday evening, then turned into a battleground as Hezbollah fighters on the overlooking hillsides deployed mortars, recoilless rifles and snipers to attack Assir’s mosque. Army troops cut off most of the approaches to the area and came under attack.

“I saw plainclothes military men, I think they were Hezbollah, approach [an Assir bodyguard] and beat and arrest him for carrying a pistol he did not have,” said Ibrahim Dada, as he manned a checkpoint with his machine gun inside the Abra neighborhood in Sidon. “So we defended our people from the Party of Satan,” a common Sunni nickname for Hezbollah.

A McClatchy correspondent present witnessed repeated mortar and rocket propelled grenade attacks on the area from a hillside widely know to contain Hezbollah military positions overlooking the city.

Assir, whose hardline anti-Shiite and anti-Hezbollah beliefs have polarized the mostly Sunni city of Sidon, had previously threatened to wage war on Hezbollah if the group does not withdraw thousands of its fighters from Syria, where they are assisting the Assad regime in putting down a mostly Sunni revolution. He has also called for Hezbollah to withdraw from Sidon itself and set a deadline for next week before his men attack their positions.

However, it appeared that it would be difficult for Assir to make good on that threat as well-trained and well-equipped Hezbollah fighters pounded the areas around his stronghold on the outskirts of Sidon with all manner of heavy weapons.

The normally quiet residential neighborhood of Abra was battered by rocket propelled grenades, sniper fire, and even mortar rounds launched from Hezbollah positions overlooking the city. Assir’s black masked and armed followers appeared pinned down in the stairwells of apartment buildings in the area.

The Lebanese Army was maintaining its positions about a mile away from the fighting, along the seaside road that runs through Sidon, where its American supplied armored personnel carriers and Bradley Fighting Vehicles could be seen blocking many roads.

Even as snipers from within Abra targeted their positions, they eventually forced the closure of Lebanon’s main coastal highway. The Army released an early evening statement that said its troops were preparing a major assault on the area and that Assir would be targeted himself for ‘provocation’ and disturbing the public safety.

McClatchy could not confirm reports that Sunni gunmen from the neighboring Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp -- home to a number of jihadist groups sympathetic to Al Qa'eda -- were entering the fray on the side of Assir’s men. But a substantial amount of gunfire could be heard from the area as local television reported Lebanese Army checkpoints around the camp had come under heavy fire from unknown gunmen.

In response to reports of fighting, Sunni neighborhoods throughout Lebanon saw masked gunmen emerge and streets blocked by burning tires even as government and religious leaders called for calm and order.

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

In this Thursday, July 24, 2014 photo, Marwan Hassanein, 4, rests at the Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Marwan was injured in head and eyes by shrapnel while fleeing with his family on July 20 during Israeli shelling in the Shijaiyah neighborhood. The Israeli military says it is doing its utmost to spare civilians, including by sending evacuation warnings to homes and neighborhoods that are about to be targeted in Israel's air- and ground operation. However, Gaza is densely populated, with 1.7 million people squeezed into a small strip of land on the Mediterranean, leaving little room for escape.

    In Gaza, pediatrics wing crowded with war wounded

    The pediatrics wing of the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip is filled with the youngest victims of more than two weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting.

FILE - In this file photo taken on Tuesday, July  2, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and CEO of state-controlled Russian oil company Rosneft Igor Sechin speak during a signing ceremony of cooperation agreements with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Having for months dismissed Western sanctions on Russia as toothless, business leaders here are now afraid that the crash of the Malaysian jetliner will bring about an international isolation that will cause serious and lasting economic damage. The U.S. and EU are still playing something similar to “good cop, bad cop” with Russia, said Chris Weafer of the Moscow-based Macro-Advisory, but it remains to be seen whether the Malaysian plane crash will be a game changer for Russia’s economy.

    Russian execs fear lasting damage from plane crash

    Having for months dismissed Western sanctions on Russia as toothless, business leaders here are now afraid that the downing of the Malaysian jetliner will bring about an international isolation that will cause serious and lasting economic damage.

Supporters listen as Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, center, speaks during a rally to mark Jerusalem Day or Al-Quds Day, in suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, July 25, 2014. Nasrallah said that the "resistance" in Gaza became victorious after the Zionists and all their backers worldwide failed in achieving any of their goals.

    Hezbollah leader vows to support Gazans

    The leader of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group vowed on Friday to support Palestinian militants battling Israeli troops in Gaza, even as his own fighters are bogged down in the war in neighboring Syria.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category