Machine gun fire and explosions from rocket-propelled grenade caused panic among residents, who also reported power and water outages. Snipers allied with al-Assir took over rooftops, terrorizing civilians, and many were asking to be evacuated from the heavily populated neighborhood around the Bilal bin Rabbah Mosque, where al-Assir preaches and where the fighting has been concentrated.
The military appealed to the gunmen to turn themselves in, vowing to continue its operations “until security is totally restored.” By evening, the army had stormed the mosque complex, though not the mosque itself.
In addition to the more than 20 followers of the cleric who were killed, dozens of them were arrested, the security official said. There was no sign of al-Assir and it was unclear if he was in the mosque or had managed to escape.
The fighting in Sidon is the bloodiest involving the army since the military fought a three-month battle in 2007 against the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam group inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon. The Lebanese army crushed the group, but the clashes killed more than 170 soldiers.
The scenes of soldiers aiming at gunmen holed up in residential buildings and armored personnel vehicles deployed in the streets evoked memories of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.
The challenges facing the Lebanese military resemble those that prevailed in that conflict, which eventually splintered the army along sectarian lines.
“It’s the memory of this destructive war that remains as a restraining force — for now,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
Tension also spread to the north in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city. Masked gunmen roamed the city center, firing in the air and forcing shops and businesses to shut down in solidarity with al-Assir. Dozens of gunmen also set fire to tires, blocking roads. The city’s main streets emptied out, but there was no unusual military or security deployment.
“The Syrian fire is beginning to devour Lebanon, and the longer the conflict goes on, the more danger there is for Lebanon to implode,” Gerges said.