What started as a clash over the detention of a Salafist cleric at a military checkpoint near the village of Abra has escalated precipitously in Southern Lebanon, as the military forces, routed yesterday by Salafist militias, came back in larger numbers.
Today the soldiers attacked the cleric’s home mosque in Sidon in a protracted siege. In the end at least 16 Lebanese soldiers were killed along with a large number of worshipers, 22 by early estimates. Nearly 100 Salafists were wounded in the mosque attack, while the Lebanese army reported 128 troops wounded.
The Lebanese military has vowed to “capture or kill” the cleric, identified as Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir. Assir had accused the military of being pro-Hezbollah. Assir’s forces still control a great deal of Sidon, and the military’s current focus is attacking the random homes around the mosque, so the fighting may take quite some time.
Assir was relatively obscure in the past but has gained prominence for his outspoken support for the Syrian rebellion. His followers have clashed with Shi’ites in and around Sidon.
The details of the checkpoint clash that started this latest round of bloodletting remain hotly disputed, as witnesses report that the checkpoint detained Assir’s convoy, at which point the fighters in the convoy surrounded the checkpoint and killed the three soldiers within. The military insists, however, that the checkpoint was randomly attacked by a rocket-propelled grenade and no standoff ever occurred. Either way, it was led to growing military action in the area and mass arrests of suspected followers of Assir.