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16 soldiers dead as Lebanon clashes continue

Fierce clashes continued for a second day between the army and gunmen loyal to a radical Sunni cleric in the Lebanon.

Lebanese army soldiers help injured soldiers after clashes between followers of a radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir and Shiite gunmen, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon today.
Lebanese army soldiers help injured soldiers after clashes between followers of a radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir and Shiite gunmen, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon today.
Image: (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

LEBANON’S THIRD LARGEST city was turned into a battle zone today as the military battled heavily armed followers of an extremist Sunni cleric holed up in a mosque in a southern port city.

Residents fled as machine gun fire and grenade explosions shook the coastal area in one of the deadliest rounds of violence, seen is a test of the weak state’s ability to contain the furies unleashed by Syria’s civil war.

16 soldiers killed

At least 16 soldiers were killed in two days of clashes with armed followers of Ahmad al-Assir, a maverick sheikh whose rapid rise among the ranks of some Sunnis is a symptom of the deep frustration among many who resent the Hezbollah-led Shiite ascendancy to power in Lebanon.

The fierce fight that al-Assir’s fighters were putting up showed how aggressive Sunni extremists have grown in Lebanon, building on anger not only at Syria’s regime but also its Shiite allies Hezbollah.

“Sidon is a war zone,” said Nabil Azzam, a resident who returned to Sidon briefly today to check on his home after having fled a day earlier with his family. “This is the result of all the sectarian rhetoric that has been building as a result of the war in Syria. It was bound to happen,” he said by telephone, his speech interrupted by a burst of gunfire.

The fighting in Sidon is the bloodiest involving the army since the military fought a three-month battle in 2007 against the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam group inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon. The Lebanese army crushed the group, but the clashes left over 170 soldiers killed.

Scenes reminiscent of Lebanon’s  civil war

The scenes of soldiers aiming at gunmen holed up in residential buildings in Sidon today and armored personnel vehicles deployed on the streets of Sidon evoked memories of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

The civil war in Syria has for the past year been bleeding into Lebanon, following similar sectarian lines of Sunni and Shiite camps. Overstretched and outgunned by militias, the military has struggled to put out fires on multiple fronts in the eastern Bekaa valley and the northern city of Tripoli, as armed factions fought pitched street battles that often lasted several days.

In many cases, soldiers stood by and watched the violence helplessly.

The army, however, moved against al-Assir today after his followers opened fire on an army checkpoint unprovoked.

Sunni cleric

Al-Assir, a 45-year-old skinny cleric with a long beard who supports the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad, is an unlikely figure to challenge the army.

Few had heard of him until last year, when he began agitating for Hezbollah to disarm, taking advantage of the deep frustration among Lebanon’s Sunnis who resent the Hezbollah-led Shiite ascendance to power in Lebanon, and a political void on the Sunni street following the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni leader.

The two days of fighting have transformed Sidon, a Mediterranean city some 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Beirut, left 50 wounded today, the National News Agency said. At least two military officers were among those killed. Security officials said more than 20 of al-Assir’s supporters were killed in the fighting, but did not provide an exact figure.

16 soldiers dead as Lebanon clashes continue
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  • Lebanon

    Black smoke rise from a burning house that was attacked during clashes that erupted between followers of a radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir and Shiite gunmen in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
  • Mideast Lebanon

    An injured Lebanese army solder walks in Sidon, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
  • Mideast Lebanon

    A convoy of Lebanese army vehicles move toward the site of clashes between followers of a radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir and Shiite gunmen in Sidon, Lebanon(AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
  • Mideast Lebanon

    Lebanese army soldiers stand while black smoke rises from a burning house that was attacked during clashes that erupted between followers of a radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir and Shiite gunmen in Sidon, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
  • Mideast Lebanon

    Lebanese Army soldiers monitor during clashes that erupted between followers of a radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir and Shiite gunmen in Sidon, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
  • Mideast Lebanon

    Lebanese army soldiers stand while black smoke rises from a burning house that was attacked during clashes that erupted between followers of a radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir and Shiite gunmen in Sidon, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
  • APTOPIX Mideast Lebanon

    Lebanese army soldiers help injured soldiers after clashes between followers of a radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir and Shiite gunmen, in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

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