Shooting between Sunni and Shia Muslim fighters near the Ein el-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon has left at least four people killed and seven others wounded, security officials say.
The officials said the clashes on Sunday between followers of Salafi leader, Ahmad al-Assir, and members of the armed Shia group Hezbollah broke out after Shia religious banners for Ashoura were not removed in the port city of Sidon.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said al-Assir’s bodyguard was killed in Sunday’s shooting, and the wounded included a Hezbollah commander.
Assir had given an ultimatum to Hezbollah supporters to take down all posters promoting the Shia group, but that they refused.
Supporters of Assir then removed a poster of Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief who is a staunch ally of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and clashes ensued.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut, said that the “deadline” was today for removing those posters.
“Hezbollah took down most of the banners and were not interested in a clash,” she said. “Gunfire erupted but it’s hard to pin down who started firing.”
She said the Lebanese army had already deployed in the mostly Sunni city, which has little Hezbollah presence but is considered the gateway to southern Lebanon.
Mikati calls for calm
Unknown before the outbreak of the uprising in neighbouring Syria last year, Assir rose to prominence for his outspoken opposition to the Assad regime and his calls for disarming Hezbollah, the strongest military force in the country.
In response to Sunday’s killings, Najib Mikati, Lebanese prime minister, called an emergency meeting with Marwan Charbel, interior minister, and the regional security council for southern Lebanon.
|Lebanon’s PM Mikati has requested the army and security agencies to arrest those behind the violence [Reuters]|
Afterwards, Mikati said he had requested the army and security agencies to take prompt measures to bring the situation under control and arrest those behind the violence.
“We call on everyone to remain calm and execute restraint at this critical and delicate juncture,” Mikati said.
Lebanon’s opposition coalition has accused Mikati, a prominent Sunni figure, of complacency in leading a Hezbollah-controlled government.
The Syrian revolt has deepened political and religious divisions in Lebanon, which is split between supporters and opponents of the Damascus regime dominated by Alawis.
Lebanon and Syria share similar sectarian strains. Most of Lebanon’s Sunnis have backed Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels, while Lebanese Shia tend to back Assad.
Sectarian tensions have been rising in Lebanon in connection with the civil war in neighbouring Syria and last month’s assassination of a senior anti-Syrian intelligence official.
The killing of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, a Sunni Muslim, sparked sectarian violence that killed at least 13 people.
Earlier this year, al-Assir and his supporters set up tents blocking a main road in Sidon for 35 days as part of an ongoing sit-in protesting the fact that Iran-backed Hezbollah maintains a formidable weapons arsenal.