BEIRUT Jan 24 It's ski season in Lebanon and
everyone's hitting the slopes.
But when the country's most controversial Sunni Muslim
cleric took a convoy of supporters out for the day and was
blocked by angry Christian protesters, many feared the trip
could be the spark that would reignite Lebanon's sectarian
The long-bearded and bespectacled cleric Ahmed al-Assir,
known for his inflammatory speeches and clashes with Shi'ite
militants, took 10 buses on Thursday from his Sunni stronghold
in the Mediterranean city of Sidon to Faraya, one of Lebanon's
Residents of Kafar Zebian, a majority Christian area on the
way to the resort, piled rocks and snow on the road in protest
at what they saw as a provocation by Assir and his hardline
supporters. A punch-up ensued and the Lebanese army intervened
to break it up.
With memories of the 1975-90 civil war still vivid,
Lebanon's sectarian-based political factions have tried to
minimise points of friction to avoid upsetting the careful
balance that has kept the peace.
Militant groups have traded gunfire over the past year as a
civil war in neighbouring Syria has deepened divisions among
supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Until a year ago, Assir was relatively unknown. But his
speeches against powerful Shi'ite leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah
and protests against Assad have won him the allegiance of many
devoted Lebanese Sunnis, especially hardliners.
In November, Assir and his gunmen tore down religious and
political banners put up by Shi'ites to mark their ceremony of
Ashura, triggering a shootout in which five people were killed.
For a few hours on the road on Thursday there was a fear the
protests could also escalate to something deadlier. Interior
Minister Marwan Charbel and Christian opposition leader Michel
Aoun called for calm and urged protesters to open the road.
"We don't want another Ain al-Remmaneh bus," Lebanon's OTV
quoted Aoun as saying, referring to an attack by Christian
militants on a bus carrying Palestinians in 1975 that marked the
start of Lebanon's civil war.
Assir and the families accompanying him eventually got up
the mountain, prayed and had a snowball fight as the sun set,
the women clad in full-body black veils.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)