BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Lebanese army stormed the mosque of a hardline Sunni preacher in the coastal city of Sidon Monday, in a bid to end two days of fighting linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The army said it lost 16 soldiers in a battle with gunmen loyal to Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a once-obscure Salafi cleric who has seen his profile rise by verbally attacking Hezbollah, the dominant political and military force in the country. At least 70 people were injured in the fighting.
Earlier this year, Assir filmed himself, Kalashnikov in hand, in the Syrian countryside with rebels from the Farouq Brigades, one of the largest and well-known units of the Free Syrian Army.
Even as Lebanese soldiers moved on Assir's mosque compound in a working class residential area of Sidon, the cleric's whereabouts were unknown.
In a video released late last night, Assir implored Lebanese Sunnis to help. "To all our partisans, we are being attacked by the Lebanese Army, which is Iranian and Shiite," he said.
"The army was attacked in cold blood in an attempt to light the fuse in Sidon, just as was done in 1975," the army said in statement on Sunday, referring to the outbreak of Lebanon's 15-year civil war.
Gunmen also appeared on the streets in Tripoli to the north, and in at least one neighborhood of Beirut from which Assir draws support.
"Praise God I was not injured, but some of my brothers are dead," a 34-year-old gunman loyal to Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons, said in a phone interview from Sidon.
"They were martyred at the hands of the Party of Satan, which is directing the Lebanese army in this terrorist attack on Abra," he said, referring to the Sidon neighborhood where Assir's Bilal bin Rabah mosque is located.
Reports that Hezbollah was fighting alongside the Lebanese army could not be confirmed.
Several other followers of Assir contacted by GlobalPost declined to comment, citing fear of reprisals.
The fighting, which included rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, began on Sunday after one of Assir's men was apparently detained at an army checkpoint. Gunmen attacked the army post and fighting quickly spread to other parts of the city, including the large Ain el Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.
According to Lebanon's official National News Agency, one of the dead included Abdel Rahman Shamandar, Assir's militia chief and the brother of former pop star Fadl Shaker, who publicly renounced his music career to take up Assir's cause.