Large crowds poured into the streets in the troubled northern Lebanese city of Tripoli today in support of the radical Sunni sheikh Ahmad al Assir, whose followers fought fierce battles with the Lebanese army this week.
Gunfire was heard and roads were blocked as crowds chanted “we will sacrifice ourselves for you Assir" in the main square of the city, which regularly sees violence linked to the civil war in neigbouring Syria.
The war across the border has heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon, as predominantly Sunni groups opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad have clashed with his supporters here.
That tension has reached boiling point in the Sunni majority cities of Tripoli and Sidon following two days of heavy clashes in Sidon between the Lebanese army and followers of Mr Assir, who has been a vocal critic of the Syrian government and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, the powerful Shia movement. Hezbollah has sent its own fighters to support President Assad across the border.
The fighting in Sidon left dozens dead and led to a wave of arrests. Mr Assir escaped and his whereabouts is unknown.
In both Sidon and Tripoli today, supporters of Mr Assir responded to calls for a “day of rage" in retaliation to the Lebanese army’s action against the sheikh and his followers.
The clashes were sparked when the Lebanese army attempted to arrest Mr Assir’s brother-in-law. Mr Assir’s followers then reportedly attacked a checkpoint in Sidon, leading to a furious response from the army who surrounded his compound in the neighbourhood of Abra.
In Sidon, protesters attempted to reach the compound to show support for the fugitive cleric, but were dispersed by the army who fired shots into the air.
Sunni anger has intensified following reports that Hezbollah members were fighting alongside the Lebanese army during the Sidon clashes. The army has denied this was the case.
The Lebanese army is seen as one of the country’s few non-sectarian institutions, but many Sunnis, Mr Assir among them, accuse it of doing the bidding of Hezbollah.
They accuse it of acting with favouritism by reacting
swiftly to disarm Mr Assir and his followers while not challenging Hezbollah’s
much greater arsenal of weapons.