At least 16 soldiers have been killed and dozens wounded in Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon over two days of intense fighting between the army and gunmen loyal to Salafi Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir.
Six soldiers were killed Sunday and 10 others Monday in clashes that were sparked after supporters of the extremist cleric ambushed an army checkpoint. The number of casualties among Assir’s gunmen is not yet known.
Violence has largely subsided as of Monday evening except for some sporadic gunfire after Lebanese troops captured a compound in Sidon’s Abra suburb reported to be housing some of Assir’s armed belligerents who number about 250.
TV footage showed the battered, several-story compound covered in bullet holes and with smoke billowing from it.
Assir escaped from the compound and remains at large to avoid arrest.
An AFP correspondent who accompanied Lebanese soldiers into the compound reportedly saw abandoned weapons, among them rocket launchers and machine guns, as well as military clothing.
Some of the apartments in the complex were still burning as troops moved in Monday evening.
The AFP journalist also saw bodies on the ground, some of them scorched.
Troops said it was unsafe to remove them from the area for fear that they may have been booby-trapped.
Military prosecutors announced Monday that a warrant has been issued for the cleric’s arrest along with 123 of his gunmen over the army killings.
Some fighting had continued in parts of Abra and in the nearby town of Taamir, close to the Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Helweh, after soldiers captured the compound.
The NNA said that extremist Palestinian militias Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham had backed Assir’s call to fight the Lebanese army.
The cleric had issued a series of urgent calls over Twitter for his supporters across Lebanon to join battle, but he has not been heard from since Monday morning.
Assir had also called for soldiers to defect from the army, which he accused of being under the control of his detested opponents Hezbollah and Iran.
“We call on our sons in the Lebanese army not to be part of an Iranian plot to kill their fellow Sunnis. Defect immediately,” he wrote on Twitter.
Some of Assir’s supporters in Tripoli heeded his calls and opened fire on two army checkpoint. Ensuing clashes injured one soldier and two civilians, the NNA said.
In other parts of the country, including Beirut’s Tarik al-Jdide neighborhood, Assir’s supporters blocked roads with burning tires. The army usually reacted quickly to reopen those roads.
The violence erupted Sunday when Assir’s gunmen killed three soldiers in an ambush on an army checkpoint in Abra.
Gunmen reportedly attacked the soldiers after they tried to arrest one of their comrades.
“An armed group loyal to Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir attacked, for no reason, a Lebanese army checkpoint in the village of Abra” just east of Sidon, an army statement said Sunday.
It added that the army will “strike back with an iron fist anyone who… spills the blood of the army.”
The army further called on leaders in Sidon to “to be alongside the Lebanese army to protect the city and its people” against the “promoters of sedition and soldier killers.”