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Lebanese soldiers battle Sunni extremists

| Sunday, June 23, 2013, 8:18 p.m.

SIDON, Lebanon — At least six Lebanese soldiers were killed on Sunday in a fierce clash with followers of a radical Sunni Muslim cleric in the southern city of Sidon as Lebanon's security continues to deteriorate because of sectarian tensions over Hezbollah's involvement in neighboring Syria's civil war.

The battle between the Lebanese Armed Forces and followers of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir apparently was sparked by an attempt to arrest of one of the cleric's bodyguards. The fighting eventually drew the involvement of Hezbollah fighters, based on a nearby mountainside, who used mortars and recoilless rifles to support the attack by Lebanese commandos.

An unknown number of gunmen and civilians were killed and wounded. Local media reports indicate that Assir's brother might have been a casualty. As night fell, the Lebanese force reported that at least 20 of its soldiers had been wounded and that it was trying to put an end both to the fighting and Assir's hold over the Abra neighborhood of Sidon. Supporters of Assir's anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syrian regime stances took to the streets throughout Lebanon to block traffic and protest.

The civil war in neighboring Syria — and Hezbollah's strong military and political support for the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad — have put much of Lebanon in political turmoil. Many Lebanese support the predominately Sunni Muslim rebels and oppose Shiite Hezbollah's involvement. But with Lebanon's powerful and numerous Shiite Muslim community supporting Hezbollah, which is widely considered the most effective military force in Lebanon, a political stalemate over involvement has turned more violent as both sides refuse to yield.

Fighting began after followers of Assir, who has called for a jihad against Hezbollah and its allies in neighboring Syria, claimed that the Lebanese army attempted to arrest members of the group without provocation. The neighborhood of Abra, where there was heavy fighting last Tuesday, then turned into a battleground as Hezbollah fighters on the overlooking hillsides attacked Assir's mosque.

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