General Security Arrests Fugitive Cleric al-Asir Trying to Flee to Nigeria

Lebanese authorities on Saturday arrested a fugitive Islamic cleric wanted for his role in deadly clashes with the army as he tried to flee the country.

Ahmed al-Asir was apprehended at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport while trying to travel to Nigeria via Cairo with a fake Palestinian passport, General Security announced.

But his Nigerian visa was not fake, it said in a statement.

A source said he had changed his appearance by doing a number of plastic surgeries.

Voice of Lebanon Radio (100.5) said that the fugitive was arrested after boarding the plane. Two other individuals were accompanying him and were carrying forged passports under the names Rami Abdul Rahman Taleb and Khaled Sidani.

The vehicle that transported al-Asir to the airport was a white Mercedes and its driver was arrested, the state-run National News Agency said.

Al-Asir, a firebrand anti-Hizbullah cleric, has been on the run since June 2013 after his armed supporters clashed with the Lebanese army in the southern port city of Sidon. The fighting killed 18 Lebanese soldiers and deepened sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims who support opposing sides in neighboring Syria's civil war.

The army seized his headquarters after 48 hours of clashes, but Asir was able to escape with several of his followers.

He continued to issue audio statements while on the run, and various rumors circulated as to where in Lebanon he was hiding.

In 2014, a military judge recommended prosecutors seek death sentences for Asir and 53 others, including singer-turned-fundamentalist Fadel Shaker.

He and his associates were accused of "having formed armed groups that attacked an institution of the state, the army, killed officers and soldiers, took explosive materials and light and heavy weapons and used them against the army."

Asir was a virtual political unknown until the outbreak of Syria's civil war.

He began making headlines after the conflict erupted by criticizing Lebanon's Hizbullah movement and its ally Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Although he was born to a Shiite Muslim mother, his discourse was highly sectarian and he often accused Lebanon's army of failing to protect Sunnis and being beholden to Hizbullah.

He encouraged his supporters to join Syria's mainly Sunni rebels and to rise up against Hizbullah.

Asir also hit headlines with media stunts, including by taking a group of his followers to the trendy winter ski resort of Faraya in early 2013.

The clashes between his supporters and the army erupted on June 24, 2013, after they opened fire on a military checkpoint.

The fighting, which centered on the Abra district in the eastern outskirts of Sidon, spread quickly, wounding dozens of civilians and paralyzing much of the coastal city.

When the fighting was over, a variety of weapons including rocket launchers were found in Asir's headquarters complex, which included a mosque, several office buildings and apartment blocks.

The families of the soldiers killed in the Abra clashes issued a statement on Saturday calling for the arrest of Shaker and "anyone who has assaulted the military and security institutions."

Their appeal came as al-Asir's supporters blocked a main road in Sidon to protest his arrest. But security forces later reopened it.

Source: Agence France Presse, Naharnet, Associated Press

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