Army Storms Asir's Security Zone, Cleric Disappears after 16 Troops Martyredإقرأ هذا الخبر بالعربية
The army on Monday stormed the security zone of Sheikh Ahmed al-Asir's mosque in the Sidon suburb of Abra and arrested a number of gunmen as the Islamist cleric fled to an unknown destination, following clashes that left 16 troops martyred.
Several local TV networks aired live footage showing army troops advancing into Asir's security zone and arresting a number of his gunmen.
Volleys of machinegun fire were being heard in Abra as the army scoured the security zone, while smoke could be seen billowing from some buildings in the area.
"The army has arrested gunmen of Arab nationalities in al-Asir's security zone," al-Manar television reported.
A security source confirmed to OTV that al-Asir was not found in the security zone.
Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3) said al-Asir and his close aide Fadel Shaker "managed to flee the security zone in Abra around 4:00 pm with the help of armed groups."
MTV said al-Asir and Shaker fled the mosque through its backdoor and headed to the Ain el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, where they have hardline Islamist allies.
"The army is saying that al-Asir is not among the captives, the wounded or the dead," LBCI television reported.
But later on Monday, Free Syrian Army political adviser Bassam al-Dada told LBCI that "al-Asir is in the custody of the FSA and he is now inside Syria."
Earlier, reports said al-Asir was entrenched in the mosque while sources said he managed to escape in an ambulance to an unknown location.
LBCI also said that the Lebanese Red Cross transported more than 20 bodies of gunmen from the security zone in Abra.
As they closed in on al-Asir's complex in Abra in the morning hours, army units came under sniper fire from his gunmen, who sought to push the soldiers back.
Snipers from high-rise buildings helped the fighters in their quest to defend the mosque.
Earlier, scores of employees at Sidon's Serail, that lies near Abra, escaped to safety after the building was hit with gunfire.
Gunmen also blocked the road near Sidon's Sea Castle. But the military later reopened it.
Many people living on high floors came down or fled to safer areas, while others were seen running away from fighting areas carrying children. Others remained locked up in their homes or shops, fearing getting caught in the crossfire. Gray smoke billowed over parts of the city.
The city has come to a standstill as the military continued to evacuate the residents of the buildings near the mosque.
In parts of the city, drivers waved white sheets from their car windows as they moved in a bid to protect themselves from sniper fire.
State Commissioner to the Military Court Judge Saqr Saqr issued search and investigation warrants against al-Asir and 123 others including his brother and Salafist-turned singer Fadel Shaker.
Earlier, al-Asir appealed to his supporters through his Twitter account in other parts of Lebanon to rise to his help, threatening to widen the scale of clashes.
The military command said the number of troops killed in the fighting that erupted at noon Sunday rose to 16. There were also more than 50 injuries among the ranks of the soldiers.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati announced a day of mourning on Tuesday, calling in a memo for a work halt from 12:00 pm till 1:00 pm
Meanwhile, the fighting in Taamir near the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh stopped after militants from different nationalities belonging to Jund al-Sham and Fatah al-Islam clashed with the army to ease the pressure on al-Asir's gunmen.
The fighting also reached the city's markets after masked gunmen began appearing there. But the army clamped down on them, preventing the clashes from spiraling out of control.
Abra's clashes erupted when al-Asir's supporters surrounded an army checkpoint in the area, where a vehicle transporting other supporters of the cleric had been stopped.
After the armed men attacked the troops with gunfire, the army fired back.
The military command vowed on Sunday to "strike back with an iron fist anyone who... spills the blood of the army.”
It urged political leaders in Sidon to choose sides and to stand either alongside the army, or with "those who promote strife and the killing of troops."
The clashes in the southern city are one of the most intense bouts of violence in Lebanon linked to the conflict in Syria.
Al-Asir, who is anti-Hizbullah, supports rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.