10 Troops Martyred in Clashes with al-Asir's Gunmen in Abra

Ten army troops were martyred and 35 others were wounded Sunday in a clash with supporters of Islamist cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Asir in the Sidon suburb of Abra, the state-run National News Agency reported.

The death toll rose on Sunday evening after the Army Command had said earlier in a released statement that two army officers, a sergeant and three soldiers died in the clashes.

It identified them as First Lieutenant Samer Jeryes Tanios, Lieutenant George Elian Bou Saab, Sergeant Ali Adnan al-Masri, First Soldier Rami Ali al-Khabbaz and soldiers Bilal Ali Saleh and Elie Nicola Rahme.

"An armed group loyal to Sheikh Ahmed al-Asir attacked, for no reason, a Lebanese army checkpoint in the village of Abra" on the outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon, it said in an earlier statement.

The fighting erupted when Asir supporters surrounded an army checkpoint in Abra, where a vehicle transporting other supporters of the cleric had been stopped, a security source told Agence France Presse.

"After the armed men attacked (the army) with gunfire" the army fired back, the source added.

LBCI television said the clash in Sidon allegedly erupted over the army's arrest of two individuals linked to the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque.

According to state-run National News Agency, one of Asir's supporters was killed and 15 other partisans were wounded.

The army vowed it "will not tolerate" the latest developments, and that it "will continue to fulfil its mandate to suppress strife."

The military will "strike back with an iron fist anyone who... spills the blood of the army", the statement added.

The army 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."

Amjad al-Asir, the cleric's brother, was defiant when reached by telephone by AFP.

"The army is with Hizbullah -- we're being bombarded from all sides," he told AFP as explosions were heard in the background.

"Sheikh Asir will stay on the battlefield along with those who support him. We will resist to the last drop of blood."

OTV said "Asir's gunmen widened their attacks and are firing towards Haret Saida from Abra."

"An RPG landed in the Alman area in Sidon district and a citizen identified as J. D. was wounded," al-Jadeed said.

"Sniper gunfire is targeting every military vehicle that passes in the vicinity of Abra and all roads linking the South to Beirut have been blocked by masked supporters of Ahmed al-Asir," military sources told MTV.

Al-Jadeed said the army came under sniper fire on Sidon's seaside road and "masked gunmen are trying to block roads near the Hariri mosque."

"The army reopened the Sidon-Beirut corniche road and is chasing the gunmen who blocked it," al-Mayadeen television said.

Agence France Presse reported that explosions were heard two kilometers away.

An AFP correspondent saw civilians fleeing the fighting, both by car and on foot.

Businesses in Abra closed for the day in the face of the raging gunfire.

"The shells are raining down on us, and there is intense gunfire," a witness told AFP by telephone.

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