Lebanese security forces arrest fugitive hard-line cleric

AP News
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Posted: Aug 15, 2015 9:23 AM
Lebanese security forces arrest fugitive hard-line cleric

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese authorities arrested a fugitive hard-line Sunni cleric Saturday who was wanted on suspicion of being involved in deadly clashes with government troops in 2013 that deepened sectarian tensions in the country.

Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir was detained at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport as he was trying to flee the country in a disguise and using a forged passport, two senior security officials and the state-run National News Agency said. One official said he appeared to have undergone several surgical operations on his face.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Al-Assir, a firebrand anti-Hezbollah cleric, had been on the run since June 2013 after his armed supporters clashed with the Lebanese army in the southern port city of Sidon. The fighting killed 18 Lebanese soldiers and worsened sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims who support opposing sides in neighboring Syria's civil war. Sunnis largely support those fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad, who belongs to the Shiite minority called Alawites.

Al-Assir issued several audio messages and appeared in at least one video while he was in hiding. In one video, he claimed the Lebanese army was dominated by the Shiite militant Hezbollah group and called on Sunni members of the military to stand against what he called "injustice."

A Lebanese military prosecutor last year charged al-Assir with being involved in the shootout with government troops and killing soldiers, demanding he face the death penalty. More than 50 of his supporters also were charged with committing crimes against the military.

At least three recent suicide bombers in Lebanon were al-Assir's followers.

Later Saturday, about 25 female relatives and supporters of al-Assir staged a protest in Sidon, briefly blocking the highway linking south Lebanon and Beirut before being dispersed by police.

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This story has been corrected to show the clashes with government troops were in 2013, not 2014 and that al-Assir has been on the run since 2013, not 2014.