At least 16 Lebanese Army soldiers have been killed since fighting broke out Sunday in the port city of Sidon between followers of a militant Sunni cleric and government troops.
Troops exchanged gunfire with armed Sunni militants holed up inside a mosque. Lebanese media reported dozens of casualties, including Sunni fighters, over a dozen soldiers and a number of civilians. Islamic militants also attacked army troops outside a Palestinian refugee camp near the city.
A top Sunni cleric in the northern city of Tripoli, Sheikh Salem al-Rifai, told journalists that negotiations with Lebanese Army officials to impose a one-hour truce to evacuate the dead and wounded had broken down.
Eyewitnesses reported that Shi'ite militiamen from the pro-Iranian Hezbollah group had taken part in the fighting in Sidon. Sunni member of parliament Bahia Hariri told a TV station that she was surrounded in her home outside the city by armed gunmen.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Saniora told reporters that he and other top leaders, including President Michel Suleiman, were trying to “impose a complete curfew in Sidon,” and the “withdrawal of all militiamen from the city.”
Hezbollah's al Manar TV claimed that the “security perimeter” outside the mosque where fighting was taking place was being “cleaned out” by Lebanese troops. The TV also claimed that Sunni Sheikh Amad al-Assir, who was leading the battle, had fled to an outlying village.
The reports could not be independently confirmed..
Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, says that Syria's civil war is causing tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite adversaries to erupt in parts of neighboring Lebanon.
He says that sectarian fighting has broken out in Lebanon and Sunnis are siding with Sunnis and Shi'ites are siding with Shi'ites, creating fresh divisions in the country despite pledges by various leaders to keep the country outside the Syrian conflict.
Civilians could be seen fleeing the Adra neighborhood of Sidon, epicenter of the conflict, during brief lulls in the fighting. Lebanese TV reported that the nearby Zahrani power plant was damaged by fighting, depriving the city of power and disabling water pumping stations.