Lebanese security forces launched a major manhunt on Tuesday for radical Salafi cleric Ahmad al-Assir, after clashes with his supporters in southern Sidon that left 17 soldiers dead.
Speculation was rife as to the whereabouts of Assir, the radical cleric known for his opposition to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement, and his antagonism to the army.
Lebanon’s military and security bodies were all mobilized to search for him, a security source said Tuesday.
“There are several hypotheses on his whereabouts,” the source said. “Some say he is disguised as a woman and that he has traveled to Tripoli (in northern Lebanon). Others say he may have fled to Syria.”
“It is also possible he is hiding in the Ain al-Helweh,” he added, referring to a Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon.
A military source said the army had arrested “dozens of people suspected of loyalty” to Assir as they captured his headquarters on Monday night after the Lebanese judiciary issued a detention order for Assir and 123 of his followers.
In the coastal city meanwhile, the army worked to consolidate its control, after troops overran Assir’s headquarters on Monday afternoon.
Journalists who toured the complex, which includes a mosque, several office building and apartment blocks, saw abandoned weapons, including rocket launchers and machine guns, as well as fatigues.
Soldiers evacuated civilians trapped in their homes since the fighting began on Sunday afternoon, and detonated explosives abandoned by Assir’s supporters as they fled on Monday.
The 24 hours of clashes were the worst to hit Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict in neighboring Syria, which has inflamed sectarian tensions in Lebanon, sparking sporadic fighting.
A day of mourning was announced for the 17 soldiers killed in the fighting, and the government held a moment of silence.
The violence began on Sunday evening, when Assir’s supporters opened fire on an army checkpoint, reportedly after a car carrying his backers was stopped.
The clashes quickly spread, with his supporters and the army exchanging gun and mortar fire, terrifying local residents.
The fighting was condemned by figures across Lebanon’s political spectrum.
The controversial cleric was virtually unknown until the beginning of the Syrian conflict, but gained prominence for his criticism of Hezbollah and its support for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, his supporters clashed with Hezbollah backers in the Abra neighbourhood, in fighting that left one civilian dead.