BEIRUT Lebanese troops detonated booby traps at a complex captured from followers of a hardline al-Qaeda linked 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 once preached told reporters they were clearing the complex of explosives. An Associated Press photographer on the scene heard several explosions and saw black smoke billowing during the operation.
The fate of Al-Assir, a maverick sheik who controlled the complex for about two years, is unknown. His rapid rise in popularity among Sunnis underscored the deep frustration of many Arabs who resent the influence Hezbollah.
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 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.
Despite the heavy death toll, the military appeared to have successfully put down the threat from al-Assir and his armed supporters by late Monday.
The officials said troops raided several apartments around Sidon on Tuesday in search of al-Assir’s followers. Security was tight in hospitals where wounded militants were being treated, they added, with even relatives prevented from visiting them.
“I was surprised. This was not a mosque. It was a security center,” outgoing Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told reporters after touring the Bilal bin Rabbah complex in Sidon where al-Assir’s supporters had been holed up. He said among the detainees who were fighting with al-Assir were foreigners.
“They brought in foreigners to kill Lebanese,” Charbel said, without giving nationalities other than a Sudanese who was detained Tuesday.
President Michel Suleiman said in a statement that army command has been given the “political support” to retaliate against groups that threaten national security.
By noon, streets around al-Assir’s complex were packed with people who came to inspect their homes and shops, many of which were damaged during the fighting. Lebanese commandos patrolled streets littered with cars that were burnt-out and riddled with bullets.
Inside the complex, a seven-story building was pockmarked with shells and bullet holes and the top two floors appeared totally burnt. The small mosque where al-Assir preached appeared intact. Troops had avoided hitting it directly.
Sidon, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Beirut, had largely been spared from violence plaguing Lebanon’s border areas where Syria’s civil war has been spilling over. 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.
The fighting in Sidon is the bloodiest involving the army since the military fought a three-month battle in 2007 against the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam group inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon. The Lebanese army crushed the group, but the clashes killed more than 170 soldiers.
Al-Assir, a 45-year-old cleric, supports the US backed rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
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