Dozens dead as Syrian war spreads to Lebanese coastal city of Sidon

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Snipers out on the streets as Lebanese army scours city for anti-Hezbollah cleric

Abra

The sound of sniper fire echoing across the Lebanese city of Sidon grew quieter last night as the worst of two days of violence fuelled by the civil war in neighbouring Syria looked to be drawing to a close.

In recent days this usually bustling coastal city has been paralysed, becoming the latest flashpoint in Lebanon to be affected by the war across the border. The fighting has drawn comparisons to events that preceded Lebanon's own civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and was fought largely along sectarian lines.

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Since Sunday the Lebanese army has been engaged in a series of battles with armed followers of Ahmad al-Assir, a radical Sunni sheikh aligned with the predominantly Sunni rebel forces in Syria.

Mr Assir - a fiery speaker and a fierce critic of the Shia militant group Hezbollah - had little public profile just two years ago, but has come to prominence as the Syrian crisis has intensified. He has been bolstered by disaffected Sunnis sympathetic to his criticism of Hezbollah's engagement alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Assad. Mr Assir's followers are thought to number only in the hundreds, but his masked gunmen parade openly with their weapons. Tensions in Lebanon rose significantly when Hezbollah took a decisive role alongside Assad loyalists in recapturing Qusayr earlier this month.

The latest round of violence in Sidon began when the army detained one of Mr Assir's supporters. The army claims his followers responded by attacking an army checkpoint, sparking clashes across the city.

Mr Assir has previously accused the Lebanese army of siding with Hezbollah, and during clashes on Sunday he called on "honourable" soldiers to defect and join him. As fighting was ongoing yesterday, he used Twitter to call for reinforcements. "Come and save your people who are being massacred," he wrote.

His supporters blocked roads with burning tyres across Sidon and in Tripoli, a Sunni stronghold on Lebanon's northern coast, masked gunmen rode motorbikes through the streets, firing guns and burning tyres in a show of loyalty.

Yesterday's fighting was centred largely on the Abra district of Sidon, where Mr Assir and many of his supporters live.

Plumes of smoke rose above Abra's rooftops yesterday afternoon and the crackle of gunfire rang out sporadically. During brief lulls families could be seen retreating.

After volleys of heavy gunfire, the army stormed the Bilal bin Rabah mosque where Mr Assir's supporters were holding out. As darkness fell, soldiers were still attempting to clear the area of snipers.

Mr Assir was reported to have escaped from the mosque during the clashes, while security sources said at least 62 of his supporters had been arrested in Abra. Twelve soldiers were reported killed, although security sources put the toll at 18. Dozens of injuries were reported by medics at the scene.

A statement by the military command said the latest violence "has gone beyond all expectations. The army was attacked in cold blood in an attempt to light the fuse in Sidon, just as was done in 1975".

While events appeared to show that many Assir supporters are willing to die for their leader, the residents of Sidon who ventured out yesterday had few kind words to say.

"I do not like the dogs of Assir," said Talal Masood, a shopkeeper. "He is just trying to sow division. The army are the children of the people. Why are they killing our children?"

Analysts, meanwhile, suggested that the army should have taken action against Mr Assir earlier. "This should have been solved when he cut off the south," said Nizar Abdel Kader, a former army general, referring to an incident last summer when Mr Assir and his supporters blocked Lebanon's main southern highway for more than a month in a peaceful protest against Hezbollah.

"Instead of the interior minister going to kiss his beard, we should have gone there with armed vehicles and taught him a lesson," Mr Kader added.

Dr Mohamad Bizri, a dentist and member of Sidon's municipal council, has watched with despair as Assir has grown increasingly militant.

"Some people are working very hard to create segregation in Lebanon," he told The Independent. "What is [Assir's] plan for unemployment, lack of development and youth leaving [the country]? He has none. What is his plan? To spread Islam?"

"Sidon is a multicultural place. We have protestants, Catholics, Druze -- we have everybody here. This is why it is so bad that this is happening."

Moneeb Ibrahim al Majzoub, a recent graduate, was forced to leave his home in Abra when fighting broke out on Sunday evening.

"I left ten minutes after it began," he said. "Only two people stayed in my building. Hopefully the army will finish it tonight."

Mr Majzoub said he has seen his friends radicalised by Assir.  "Assir's changed my friend's minds with his words and his guns. Now they know no fear."

There was mounting speculation on Monday that Britain could be set to increase support to Lebanon in the days ahead. Tom Fletcher, British Ambassador to Lebanon, wrote on Twitter: "UK to accelerate & increase support to the Lebanese army: training and kit. More information to follow." The Foreign Office were not able to elaborate on the report last night.

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