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Dozens killed in clash between Lebanese troops, hard-line cleric's followers

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanese troops detonated booby traps at a complex captured from followers of a hard-line Sunni cleric on Tuesday, securing the area after two days of fighting that left dozens dead in the port city of Sidon.

Soldiers who blocked off several office and residential buildings around the mosque where Ahmad al-Assir, 45, once preached told reporters they were clearing the complex of explosives. Al-Assir supports the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The fate of al-Assir, a maverick Sunni sheik who controlled the complex for about two years, is unknown. His rapid rise in popularity among Sunnis underscored the deep frustration of many Lebanese who resent the influence Shiites have gained in government via the militant group Hezbollah, which has sent forces to Syria to support Assad.

Official reports said at least 17 soldiers were killed and 50 were wounded in the fighting, while more than 20 of al-Assir's supporters died in the battle, according to a security official who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.

The fighting, some of the worst involving Lebanese troops in years, was seen as a test of the weak government's ability to contain the furies unleashed by the civil war in neighboring Syria. Sidon, about 25 miles south of Beirut, had largely been spared from violence plaguing Lebanon's border area. Fighting in the Mediterranean city began Sunday after troops arrested an al-Assir follower. The army says the cleric's supporters opened fire without provocation on an army checkpoint.

Smoke rises from the Bilal bin Rabbah Mosque in the port city of Sidon, Lebanon, on Tuesday. Troops captured the complex from followers of Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir, who preached there.

Associated Press

Smoke rises from the Bilal bin Rabbah Mosque in the port city of Sidon, Lebanon, on Tuesday. Troops captured the complex from followers of Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir, who preached there.

Dozens killed in clash between Lebanese troops, hard-line cleric's followers 06/25/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 1:46am]

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