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Lebanese army seizes leading Sunni cleric's headquarters


08:26, June 25, 2013

BEIRUT, June 24 (Xinhua) -- Lebanon's army seized Monday a leading Sunni cleric's headquarters in a southern city and arrested a number of his gunmen in an operation that left 16 soldiers killed, a security source said.

The army stormed the headquarters located in the Abra suburb of Sidon city while Sheikh Ahmed Al Assir fled the area, the source said, adding ambulances transported over 50 wounded and 20 dead bodies to hospitals.

According to the army, the operation was launched as Al Assir's supporters attacked an army checkpoint in the area.

Volleys of gunshots were heard in Abra as the army scoured the security zone of the headquarters, and smoke could be seen billowing from some buildings in the area, TV footage showed.

Voice of Lebanon radio said Al Assir and his close aide, retired singer Fadhl Shaker, "managed to flee the security zone in Abra around 4:00 p.m. (1300 GMT) with the help of armed groups."

Media reports said the two headed to the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp where they have hardline Islamist allies, but the security source said those reports are unconfirmed.

Meanwhile, militants of different nationalities belonging to " Jund al-Sham" and "Fatah al-Islam" groups clashed with the army in an attempt to rescue the gunmen. The fighting reached near the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp and a number of markets.

Monday's violence in Abra followed a clash between Al Assir's supporters and Hezbollah supporters last week which killed one person.

The incident prompted State Commissioner to the Military Court Judge Saqr Saqr to issue search and investigation warrants against Al Assir and 123 others including his brother and Shaker earlier on Monday.

Also, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on Monday voiced solidarity with the military institution and called on the army to arrest those who assault it at a security meeting held at Baabbda presidential palace.

Lebanon's Shiite party Hezbollah slammed the attack against the army by supporters of Al Assir. "The army is the guarantor of civil peace in Lebanon and any attack against it is tantamount to an attack against the entire nation."

The militant party demanded "all measures be taken to put a complete stop to such assaults against the army and bring the assailants to justice."

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