Qahwaji Inspects Army Units in Sidon as Manhunt Launched for Asir

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June 25, 2013 By Naharnet

Army Commander General Jean Qahwaji inspected on Tuesday military units in the southern city of Sidon as security forces launched a major manhunt for radical Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Asir.

In the coastal city meanwhile, the army worked to consolidate its control, after troops overran Asir's headquarters on Monday afternoon.

Soldiers evacuated civilians trapped in their homes since the fighting with Asir's supporters began on Sunday afternoon, and detonated explosives abandoned by Asir's supporters as they fled on Monday.

The 24 hours of clashes were the worst to hit Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict in neighboring Syria, which has inflamed sectarian tensions in the country, sparking sporadic fighting.

A day of mourning was announced for the 17 soldiers killed in the fighting, and the government held a moment of silence.

Qahwaji left Sidon without making any statement.

The streets around Asir's complex were packed with people who came to inspect their homes and shops, many of which were damaged during the fighting.

Lebanese commandos patrolled streets littered with burnt-out cars and others riddled with bullets.

Speculation was rife as to the whereabouts of Asir, the radical cleric known for his opposition to Hizbullah, and his antagonism to the army.

A day earlier, the Lebanese judiciary issued a detention order for Asir and 123 of his followers, and on Tuesday, Lebanon's military and security bodies were all mobilized to search for him, a security source said.

"There are several hypotheses on his whereabouts," the source told Agence France Presse.

"Some say he is disguised as a woman and that he has traveled to Tripoli (in northern Lebanon). Others say he may have fled to Syria."

"It is also possible he is hiding in (the southern Palestinian refugee camp of) Ain el-Hilweh," he added, referring to a Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon.

A military source said the army had arrested "dozens of people suspected of loyalty" to Asir as they captured his headquarters on Monday night.

Journalists who toured the complex, which includes a mosque, several office building and apartment blocks, saw abandoned weapons, including rocket launchers and machine guns, as well as fatigues.

The complex in Abra, on the eastern outskirts of Sidon, is a residential area and dozens of civilians were trapped by the fighting, which left several apartments in the area burned out.

The violence began on Sunday evening, when Asir's supporters opened fire on an army checkpoint, reportedly after a car carrying his backers was stopped.

The clashes quickly spread, with his supporters and the army exchanging gun and mortar fire, terrifying local residents.

The fighting was condemned by figures across Lebanon's political spectrum, including Sunni leaders who distanced themselves from Asir.

The controversial cleric was virtually unknown until the beginning of the Syrian conflict, but gained prominence for his criticism of Hizbullah and its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He slammed the group for sending fighters to Syria to battle the Sunni-led uprising alongside regime troops, and encouraged his own followers to join rebel forces there.

The conflict has exacerbated sectarian tensions in Lebanon, particularly between Shiites who back the Syrian regime, and Sunnis who favor the uprising.

Asir has also called for Hizbullah to be disarmed, a popular cause with many Lebanese who resent the group's power, and criticized the army which he claims turns a blind eye to the group's armory.

Last week, his supporters clashed with Hizbullah backers in the Abra neighborhood, in fighting that left one civilian dead.

Sunni leaders on Monday urged the army to work "fairly and thoroughly" to disarm all groups in Lebanon."

The law "needs to apply to all Lebanese equally. The state's institutions are responsible for all Lebanese... without distinction," they said.

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