Fierce fighting between the Lebanese Army and supporters of a firebrand anti-Hezbollah sheikh in the south Lebanon city of Sidon raged for a second day Monday, security sources said, adding that the number of soldiers killed in the two days of clashes had risen to 17.
The sources said the Army tightened the noose around Sheikh Ahmad Assir and his some 250 gunmen barricaded in and around a mosque in the Abra suburb of the city, 40 km south of Beirut, in overnight fighting after an attempt by a group of Salafi preachers to mediate a truce reached a dead-end.
The military, which deployed several tanks in the area, made several attempts to approach the Abra mosque, according to the sources, but was still facing stiff resistance from the preacher’s gunmen who deployed in surrounding buildings.
Fighting erupted Sunday after Assir supporters attacked an Army checkpoint, killing three soldiers and wounding several others.
Pitched battles ensued as the Army, which vowed to respond with an iron fist to the "cold-blooded" attack, stormed Assir-held Abra.
At least 14 more soldiers were killed and more than 65 wounded. At least two civilians also died in the clashes, which brought Sidon to a standstill.
Reports on the casualties among the gunmen remained sketchy, though two were confirmed dead early in the battle.
Hundreds of civilians were trapped in the fighting with some making appeals on local television stations for the Army to secure a safe passage for them.
An apartment block said to house Assir's house was set ablaze by rocket-propelled grenades while other buildings and dozens of cars were damaged.
Ambulances and civil defense units were also unable to gain access to the tiny neighborhood.
The sources said one of the two civilian fatalities occurred in the Taamir area of the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, where militants fought Army positions early Monday in an attempt to relieve the pressure off Abra. Two soldiers were also wounded in that area.
Heavy traffic straddled Sidon’s coastal highway from the south in the morning hours as motorists made their way to the Lebanese capital following weekend retreats.
“I felt trapped in my car waiting to get passed the security checkpoint on the seaside road,” one motorist, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
“The sound of gunfire is just non-stop and the smoke over the city can be seen miles away,” the motorist, speaking from Sidon, added.
Military sources said the Army was determined to continue operations until Assir was captured and his followers crushed. They said the Army expected to have complete control of Abra later Monday.
The fighting, which the Army said was reminiscent of events preceding Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War, highlighted the increasing impact of the conflict in Syria on its small neighbor.
Assir is a staunch supporter of rebels seeking the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad and an outspoken critic of Hezbollah.
He had stepped up his rhetoric against Hezbollah, in ferocious sectarian tone, since the powerful group announced in April that it was fighting alongside Assad's forces.
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