BEIRUT - Three people were killed on Sunday when fighting
broke out in the Lebanese coastal city of Sidon between followers of a Sunni
Salafist preacher and supporters of the Lebanese Shi'ite guerrilla movement
Hezbollah, a security official said.
The killings underlined the
deepening Shi'ite-Sunni divide in the small but regionally important country,
mirroring divisions in neighboring Syria where a Sunni-led revolt against
President Bashar Assad broke out 20 months ago.
The clash occurred in
the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh on the edge of Sidon, a mostly
Sunni city, when followers of Sheikh Ahmed al-Aseer, who adhere to a puritan
interpretation of Islam, began removing banners put up by Hezbollah in advance
of Ashura, a Shi'ite religious occasion.
Ain el-Helweh, a sprawling camp
40 km (25 miles) south of Beirut, is also home to many Lebanese.
flared and the two sides fired automatic rifles at each other," the Lebanese
official said, adding that a Lebanese army unit was subsequently dispatched to
Ashura marks the killing of Imam Hussein bin Ali by Ummayyad
forces at the battle of Karbala in Iraq in 680, a culmination of a power
struggle that ushered in the great Sunni-Shi'ite divide in Islam which still
shapes the Middle East's political map.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a
business tycoon who was a close friend to Assad before the revolt, called upon
all parties "to exercise self-restraint and not provoke security incidents in
this sensitive point of time".
Tensions have increased in Lebanon against
the backdrop of Syrian revolt. Wissam al-Hassan, an anti-Assad Lebanese
intelligence commander, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut last
Sunni politicians and religious leaders blamed Syria and Hezbollah
for the assassination. The two sides deny involvement.
In recent months
violence has also flared on several occasions in the northern city of Tripoli,
with fighters loyal to opposing sides in Syria's war killing one another in
Hezbollah, the only Lebanese faction allowed to keep arms since
the Taef agreement two decades ago ended a long civil war in the country, has
supported Assad as he struggles to survive the Sunni-led revolution against his
Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an
offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated power in Syria since the 1960s. His
father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, played a leading role in setting up
Hezbollah in the 1980s, along with Iran's clerical rulers.