Sectarian clashes in Lebanon increase in intensity

Al-Assir supporters attack members of Lebanese army in Sidon, killing at least four soldiers; six Lebanese soldiers wounded.

June 23, 2013 21:33
2 minute read.
Sunni Muslim gunmen express solidarity with al-Assir in Tripoli, June 23, 2013.

Solidarity with Salafist leader al-Assir in Tripoli, 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim )

Supporters of the Lebanese Sunni Islamist Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, who is a fierce critic of Hezbollah's military intervention in neighboring Syria, attacked members of the country’s army early Sunday afternoon near the southern city of Sidon, killing at least four soldiers, according to a report in the Lebanese Daily Star.

Two fighters affiliated with Assir’s forces were killed and an additional six Lebanese soldiers were wounded in ongoing fighting that continued into the evening hours.

The army released a statement saying that the armed group affiliated with Assir attacked its soldiers in cold blood “without any reason,” according to the report.

“What happened today in Sidon went beyond all expectations. The Army was attacked cold-bloodedly and with the intent of setting off the explosion in Sidon as in 1975 [the beginning of Lebanon’s Civil War] with the purpose of plunging Lebanon into the cycle of violence,” the Army said in a statement.

Assir called on Sunni soldiers to desert the army, according to the report.

Meanwhile, president Michel Suleiman called for an emergency meeting on Monday.

Sources told Reuters that fighting in the Sunni dominated city broke out when a follower of Sheikh Assir was arrested at an army roadblock in Sidon, 40 km (28 miles) south of Beirut.

According to the Lebanon Now website, the Lebanese army deployed reinforcements to the area and announced it had “taken necessary measures” to restore order and arrest the perpetrators.

The recent outburst of violence follows weeks of sectarian tension and violence mainly between pro-Hezbollah Shi’ite forces in Lebanon and the Sunni dominated opposition, reflecting the same Sunni-Shi’ite conflict playing itself out in Syria as Hezbollah and Iran fight to keep the Alawite Syrian president Bashar Assad in power.

In a show of solidarity with Assir’s forces, Sunni forces in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli cut off part of the city by burning tires while gunshots could be heard, according to Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) “Hezbollah bears the major responsibility for the sin,” said Saad Hariri, the former Prime Minister from 2009-2011 and a Sunni leader of the anti-Hezbollah forces. He blamed Hezbollah for provoking the violence against the citizens of the town, according to the Lebanese daily An-Nahar.

The question that needs to be answered is how this started, was it the army picking a fight with Assir’s people and if so who in the army made that decision; or was it a move by Assir’s forces to demonstrate its resolve to the Sunni street? “The army is viewed with a lot of suspicion by Sunnis in Lebanon, because it always cracks down on them and not on Hezbollah,” said Tony  Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. He says that Assir, a young Salafi militant, “is trying to take advantage of the Sunni community’s discontent in order to position himself as the vanguard of the community against Hezbollah’s domination of the state.” Badran says that Hezbollah has infiltrated parts of the military.

Michael Young, the opinion editor at the Daily Star, tweeted that the Sunni community “risks being defined by its extremists because [its] mainstream leadership is absent.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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