Lebanese security forces launched a manhunt for radical Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir on Tuesday, after clashes with his supporters in the southern city of Sidon killed 17 soldiers.
Troops consolidated their grip on the port city after overrunning the cleric’s headquarters late on Monday but Assir himself remained at large.
Soldiers evacuated civilians trapped in their homes since the fighting began on Sunday afternoon, and blew up explosives abandoned by Assir’s supporters as they fled.
The 24 hours of clashes were the worst to hit Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict in neighbouring Syria, which has inflamed sectarian tensions in Lebanon, sparking sporadic fighting.
A day of mourning was announced for the 17 soldiers killed in the fighting, and the government held a moment of silence.
Speculation was rife as to the whereabouts of Assir, the radical cleric known for his opposition to Lebanon’s powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement, and his antagonism to the army.
A day earlier, the Lebanese judiciary issued warrants for the arrest of Assir and 123 of his followers, and on Tuesday, Lebanon’s military and security bodies were mobilised to search for him, a security source said.
“There are several hypotheses on his whereabouts,” the source said.
“Some say he is disguised as a woman and that he has travelled to Tripoli (in northern Lebanon). Others say he may have fled to Syria.”
“It is also possible he is hiding in Ain al-Helweh,” he added, referring to a Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon.
A military source said the army had arrested “dozens of people suspected of loyalty” to Assir as they captured his headquarters on Monday night.
Residents of the area expressed relief at the military operation that ousted the cleric from the district.
“I used to pray with him at the mosque when there was no distinction between us, but when his sermons started to get more inflammatory, I stopped,” said Naji Jaber, a Shiite resident married to a Sunni woman.
“I thank God that we’re rid of him,” he added.
“Even in the (1975-90) civil war, the atmosphere in Sidon wasn’t as bad as what Assir created,” he said.
Sunnis too expressed support for the operation against the radical cleric.
“As Sunnis, we had to stay quiet,” 26-year-old Mohammed said.
“But we regret that there is something like that among us.”
Inside Assir’s headquarters complex, which includes a mosque, several office buildings and apartment blocks, weapons, including rocket launchers and machineguns, lay abandoned.
“It looks more like a security headquarters than a mosque,” Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told reporters, adding that several Assir supporters detained by security forces were non-Lebanese.
The fighting, which centred in Abra on the eastern outskirts of Sidon, began on Sunday evening, when Assir’s supporters opened fire on an army checkpoint.
The clashes quickly spread, with his supporters and the army exchanging gun and mortar fire, terrifying local residents.
A medical source said more than 100 civilians were wounded, along with more than 50 military personnel.
The fighting was condemned by figures across Lebanon’s political spectrum, including Sunni leaders who distanced themselves from Assir.
The controversial cleric was virtually unknown until the beginning of the Syrian conflict, but gained prominence for his criticism of Hezbollah and its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
He slammed the group for sending fighters to Syria to battle the Sunni-led uprising, and encouraged his own followers to join the rebels.
Last week, Assir’s supporters clashed with Hezbollah backers in the Abra neighbourhood, in fighting that left one civilian dead.
Sunni leaders on Monday urged the army to work “fairly and thoroughly” to disarm all armed groups in Lebanon, including Hezbollah.
The law “needs to apply to all Lebanese equally. The state’s institutions are responsible for all Lebanese… without distinction,” they said.