SIDON: At least 12 Lebanese soldiers have been killed in less than 24 hours of clashes with supporters of a radical Sunni cleric in the southern city of Sidon, a military spokesman said on Monday.
The fighting intensified on Monday, witnesses and the Lebanese National News Agency reported, a day after the violence began, when supporters of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir opened fire on an army checkpoint.
The clashes are linked to the ongoing violence in Syria, which has raised sectarian tensions in Lebanon and led to sporadic outbreaks of fighting throughout the country.
Witnesses said gunfire and the sound of shelling had increased in the early hours of Monday morning in the Abra neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Sidon, where the fighting is now concentrated.
Lebanon’s National News Agency also reported, “fierce clashes between the Lebanese army and supporters of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir.”
An army spokesman said 12 soldiers had been killed since the fighting began on Sunday, and medical sources reported at least 35 wounded, mostly civilians.
A Salafist cleric said his bodyguard had been killed on Sunday as they attempted to reach the fighting to negotiate a ceasefire.
Assir’s brother said that the cleric and his supporters were inside Abra’s Bilal Bin Rabah mosque, where Assir preaches.
“There has been a decision taken to finish us off, but we’re resisting up until now,” Amjad al-Assir said over the phone.
“Sheikh Assir will stay in the mosque until the last drop of blood.”
“The army is fighting at the moment a few meters” from the mosque, the National News Agency said.
The clashes began on Sunday afternoon, when supporters of Assir, a Salafist cleric known for his opposition to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement opened fire on an army post in Abra.
Assir and his supporters have often accused the Lebanese army, which draws its members from across the country’s sects, of backing Hezbollah and its allies and turning a blind eye to their arms.
Assir was a virtual unknown before the war in Syria, but has railed increasingly loudly against Hezbollah, and their role fighting alongside the Syrian regime against the Sunni-led Syrian uprising.