Lebanon’s army faces accusations as Sidon fuels sectarian tensions
SIDON - Sunni clerics on Friday denounced the arrest and alleged abuse of Sunni detainees after a deadly battle between troops and supporters of radical Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in south Lebanon.
A rights watchdog said there must be an independent investigation into claims the army is committing abuses against people suspected of links to the weekend clashes in which 18 soldiers died.
The fighting in Abra outside Sidon was the worst in Lebanon since the outbreak of conflict in neighbouring Syria 27 months ago deepened sectarian tensions.
It highlighted widespread Sunni resentment against the army, accused of siding with the powerful Shiite Hezbollah and being selective in its crackdown on armed groups.
Thousands of worshippers on Friday heard Sidon's top Sunni cleric accuse the army of making arrests "without due process".
"People are being taken to prison because they are religious or because they wear a beard or a full-face veil," Sheikh Sousan said during prayers in the southern city.
"They are being beaten badly, and maybe even dying," he charged.
A security source said dozens of people have been arrested since the army seized Assir's Abra headquarters on Monday.
Assir himself has not been seen since the fighting, and Amal, one of his wives, told the LBC television channel she does not know where he is. His sister said he would "prefer to become a martyr than be captured".
Sidon residents claim the bodies of those killed have not been given to their families.
"It is Sidon's right to know how many people were killed, and to know their names. It is Sidon's right to know how many wounded there are, and their whereabouts," said Sousan.
He called for an "independent, objective, transparent... investigation" into abuse claims.
Human Rights Watch called for an independent judicial investigation into alleged abuses.
On Thursday, the army handed over to the military police soldiers suspected of humiliating and beating a man suspected of ties to Assir.
"It's not enough to have the military investigating itself," HRW Beirut office director Nadim Houry said.
The army was not immediately reachable, but on Thursday a military source told AFP: "We do not accept this kind of behaviour."
Sunni clerics, meanwhile, distributed images via Facebook of a body bearing marks of a severe beating.
The body was identified as Nader al-Bayoumy, whom the Association of Muslim Scholars said had "handed himself in" after the Abra clash.
Houry said his family insisted Bayoumy was alive after the fighting, but they later received a call to say his body was at the military hospital in Beirut.
Tension was also palpable in Tripoli in the north, with some Friday worshippers calling for jihad (holy war).
Sunni Sheikh Salem al-Rafei echoed calls for an investigation into alleged army abuses.
"The Lebanese army must be neutral, and we will not be silent now," Rafei said.
Armed men fired into the air after prayers as worshippers thronged to Tripoli's main square and blocked roads in the city that has seen frequent Syria-related clashes.
In Beirut, dozens staged a sit-in in the majority Sunni Tariq al-Jdideh district, which has also seen frequent violence.
Sunni rage against Hezbollah has soared since it began fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's troops in Syria. Lebanon's Sunni-led opposition supports the rebels.