SIDON, LEBANON —
Smoke rises near a mosque complex, where hardline Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir was believed to be sheltering with his supporters in Abra near Sidon, southern Lebanon, June 24, 2013.
Fierce fighting between Lebanese security forces and gunmen loyal to a hard-line Sunni Muslim cleric raged for a second day in the southern city of Sidon leaving dozens of soldiers and militants dead.
For two days radical Sunni gunmen have clashed with Lebanese soldiers - the worst fighting Lebanon’s third largest city has seen since 2008.
Army sources say at least 16 soldiers have died in the violence centered on a mosque in the Abra district in this port city.
Veteran politician Osama Saad said the battles remind him of the day his father, Maarouf, a pro-Palestinian and pro-Syrian Lebanese leader, was slain by a sniper’s bullet in Sidon in 1975.
“He was leading a demonstration for fishermen," he said. "They had demands. He was shot in the middle of the street by a sniper and that ignited the civil war.”
The 15-year-long civil war left more than 120,000 Lebanese dead.
Saad, who leads his father’s party now, the pro-Syrian Nasserite Popular Front, said through a translator that the battle in Sidon brings back bitter memories.
“Today I remember the atmosphere of the civil war, I used to hear a lot of shelling and snipers," he said. "I don’t wish at all this experience will be repeated again.”
The two-day battle was triggered when supporters of Sunni Sheikh Amad al-Assir attacked an army checkpoint after soldiers seized a couple of their comrades.
Al-Assir has been calling for Sunni Muslims to launch a holy war against Lebanon’s militant Shi'ite movement Hezbollah because of its military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Sidon, which had been spared the sectarian gun-battles that have flared increasingly in the northern Lebanon town of Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley bordering Syria, witnessed brief fighting last week but a truce was brokered.
The renewal of the shooting caught many civilians by surprise after just returning to the city after fighting last week.
Among them was 28-year-old Sunni Muslim Zeinab Nassar, who says the fighting may be the harbinger of a civil war - a fear shared by many Lebanese. She spoke as gunfire resumed after a brief cease-fire.
“There were a lot of bombs and guns going on through the night," she said. "We are all worried about this. We think this is the first spark. We can only hope now.”
Sheikh al-Assir is believed to have escaped from his besieged mosque and the army is hunting for him.