Syria’s civil war ignited a new outbreak of sectarian violence in Lebanon, with at least 37 people reported killed in battles between the army and supporters of a cleric who declared holy war on President Bashar al-Assad.
Twelve Lebanese soldiers were killed and more than 50 were wounded in a shootout with followers of Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir outside the southern city of Sidon, the official National News Agency reported. More than 25 gunmen loyal to the cleric were killed, the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper reported on its website, citing unidentified security officials. Soldiers fought with snipers positioned on rooftops, and gunmen also shot at troops near a Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon, the NNA said.
Sidon has turned into a “war zone,” the city’s municipality said in a statement. “The situation is tragic. There is no water or electricity. Fear is ruling on the streets and in the neighborhoods.”
The civil war in Syria has inflamed sectarian violence in its smaller neighbor, whose modern history has been intertwined with Syria’s and plagued with conflict. The turmoil sent Lebanon’s credit risk rising 53 basis points last week, the biggest increase since August, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The benchmark BLOM Stock Index fell 0.4 percent today.
The army said its troops came under unprovoked attack and vowed in a statement to “strike with an iron first against whoever dares to spill the army’s blood.” It said military operations in Sidon will continue until “security is completely restored to the city and its surroundings.”
Violence was also reported in the northern city of Tripoli, the scene of repeated clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government. There was an explosion near a major traffic circle and hundreds of gunmen were roaming the streets today, some firing in the air, while a hand-grenade was thrown at a barber’s shop, the NNA said.
Al-Assir was among Lebanese clerics who called for a holy war to defend Sunnis in Syria, members of Islam’s main branch, against Assad’s government and Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite Muslim group propping up his army. Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Hezbollah’s open military support for Assad has deepened the polarization in the region between Islam’s two main sects. The Iranian-backed group helped Assad to retake a strategic town in Syria this month, prompting the Sunni-ruled Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized the provision of small arms to the Syrian opposition, and joined 10 other countries on June 22 in pledging support to the rebels. The move may obstruct talks set to take place in Geneva, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told a news conference today.
The Syrian government plans to take part in the talks “with all seriousness, to stop the violence,” he said. The timing of the conference and the final list of participants haven’t been announced yet.
Syria’s civil war has left more than 93,000 dead since March 2011 and driven more than 1.5 million refugees into neighboring countries.