Six Lebanese soldiers were killed on Sunday in a clash with supporters of a radical Sunni Muslim sheikh opposed to the Hizbullah terror group, an army statement quoted by the AFP news agency said.
“An armed group loyal to Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir attacked, for no reason, a Lebanese army checkpoint in the village of Abra” on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, the military said, according to AFP.
The clash broke out when Assir’s supporters surrounded an army checkpoint in Abra, where a vehicle transporting other supporters of the Sunni cleric had been stopped, a security source told AFP.
“After the armed men attacked (the army) with gunfire” the army fired back, the source added.
An AFP journalist reported that explosions were heard two kilometers (more than a mile) away.
The correspondent saw civilians fleeing the fighting, both by car and on foot.
The controversial Sunni sheikh called on his supporters last week to fire on apartments in Abra that he says house Hizbullah members.
Abra is home to a mosque where Assir leads the main weekly prayers on Fridays, reported AFP. The sheikh believes Hizbullah uses the Abra apartments to keep him under surveillance.
Two months ago, Sheikh Assir lashed out at Hizbullah for helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces fight the predominately Sunni opposition in the country, announcing the formation of “Free Resistance Brigades” to fight Hizbullah in Syria.
He said it was “a religious duty” for his Sunni followers to join the fight against Hizbullah and the Syrian regime.
It was later reported that Lebanese youth were responding to Assir’s call and were signing up for “armed Jihad in Syria.”
Syria-related tensions have soared in Lebanon, deepening sectarian rifts between Sunnis and Shiites.
Shiite Hizbullah supports Assad's regime, while the Sunni-dominated opposition backs the rebels fighting it. The Syrian civil war has spilled into Lebanon on more than one occasion.
Lebanon's army recently warned it will hit back against any new attacks from Syria, after a helicopter gunship struck an eastern town.
During Sunday’s fighting, Assir distributed a video message via mobile phone addressed to his supporters.
“We are being attacked by the Lebanese army,” Assir said, according to AFP, describing the military as “sectarian” and accusing it of supporting Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah.
“I call on everyone... to cut off roads and to all honorable soldiers, Sunni and non-Sunni, to quit the army immediately,” Assir said in the message.
He urged supporters across Lebanon to flock to Abra “to help defend our religion, our honor and our women.”