Last updated: 4 July, 2013

Fugitive Lebanese cleric in new audio message

Lebanese cleric Ahmed al-Assir, a radical Salafi on the run since deadly clashes between his forces and the country’s army last month, has urged his supporters to turn out to a Friday rally.

In an audio message posted online on Thursday he also accused the army and Shiite group Hezbollah of cooperating and conspiring against him during the fighting in the southern town of Sidon last month.

Assir, who has not issued any public comment since he escaped from Sidon and an arrest warrant was issued against him, urged “my brothers to make a move this Friday.”

“Go out from the mosques, make a symbolic stand, raise your voices to say we demand prosecution of the criminals,” he said in an apparent reference to Hezbollah and their backers.

Lebanese media said members of Assir’s family confirmed that the recording was his voice.

Lebanon’s security forces have been searching for Assir since the end of a battle between his supporters and army troops in Sidon last month.

The clashes, which erupted on June 24, reportedly after Assir’s supporters ambushed an army checkpoint, left at least 18 soldiers dead.

Dozens of Assir’s supporters were also reported killed in the 24 hours of violence, which raised tensions throughout Lebanon and ended with the cleric on the run.

Assir has gained notoriety for his fierce opposition to powerful Hezbollah militia, particularly in the wake of the group’s decision to back the Syrian regime against an uprising.

He has repeatedly called for the group to be disarmed, and in the Thursday message accused the army of collaborating with Hezbollah against him during last month’s fighting.

Hezbollah’s role in the fighting was “leadership, management and supervision to make sure the army carried out orders,” he said.

“The army is Lebanese by name… but controlled by Iran,” he added, in reference to Hezbollah’s closest ally Tehran, which supplies the group with weapons.

“Shame on the army commander and shame on this army and shame on all officials aware that the party (Hezbollah) managed this battle in a direct manner,” he added.

Assir was virtually unknown before the conflict in neighbouring Syria, which has raised tensions in Lebanon, particularly between Sunni backers of the uprising and Shiite supporters of the regime.

In response to Hezbollah’s decision to send fighters to battle alongside regime troops in Syria, Assir has urged Lebanese Sunnis to join the uprising there, which is Sunni-dominated.