At least six Lebanese soldiers have been killed in a clash with supporters of a Sunni sheikh opposed to the Shia movement Hezbollah.
“An armed group loyal to Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir attacked, for no reason, a Lebanese army checkpoint in the village of Abra” the Lebanese military said on Sunday. “Two officers and a soldier were killed, while several others were wounded.”
The clash happened when Assir’s supporters surrounded an army checkpoint in Abra, on the outskirts of Sidon, where a vehicle transporting other supporters of the Sunni cleric had been stopped, a security source said. The army were fired on, and then returned fire, the source added.
Residents stayed in their homes and businesses closed as firefights flared. “The shells are raining down on us, and there is intense gunfire,” one witness said.
The army has said it would not stay silent on the attack, and called on politicians to take a stand.
Political leaders across the country are rallying behind the Lebanese army, with the interior minister calling attacks on the army a ‘red line’.
The Sunni sheikh called on his supporters last week to fire on apartments in Abra that he says house Hezbollah members.
Abra is home to a mosque where Assir leads the main weekly prayers on Fridays. The sheikh believes Hezbollah uses the Abra apartments to keep him under surveillance.
His supporters clashed with Hezbollah in Abra last week in fighting that left one man dead.
Assir rose to prominence about two years ago over his opposition to Hezbollah and its ally, the Damascus regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria-related tensions have soared in Lebanon, deepening sectarian rifts between Sunnis and Shias.