July 5, 2013 / 11:43 AM / 6 years ago

Lebanese protesters rally in support of fugitive sheikh

SIDON, Lebanon (Reuters) - More than 300 Lebanese rallied in the coastal city of Sidon in support of a fugitive Sunni Islamist cleric on Friday, a day after an audio recording believed to be his voice urged followers to demonstrate.

A pro-Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir demonstrator (L) holds a poster of al-Assir while Sheikh Mohammad Abou Zeid (R), who is to replace al-Assir as the new imam of the Bilal bin Rabah mosque, walks down the stairs outside of mosque's complex in Abra near Sidon, southern Lebanon June 29, 2013. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

The protest march prompted fears of more sectarian fighting in Sidon two weeks after the cleric’s supporters and soldiers clashed there, in the worst outbreak of violence in Lebanon so far fuelled by the two-year conflict in neighboring Syria.

Angry demonstrators waved banners and cheered their support for Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, a firebrand Sunni Muslim cleric.

Assir, now on the run, was a staunch supporter of Syria’s Sunni-led uprising and accused the army of backing the interests of the Shi’ite Muslim guerrilla group Hezbollah, which is now openly fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.

Local residents said the route of the march passed near a Shi’ite neighborhood, which they feared could spark clashes. More than 40 people were killed in the fighting two weeks ago.

“With blood and soul, we sacrifice for you Assir,” the sheikh’s supporters shouted as they clapped their hands and marched out of the charred and bullet-scarred buildings around the cleric’s Bilal Bin Rabah mosque complex.

The area became a battle zone for two days last month after a group of Assir backers attacked an army checkpoint in response to the arrest of one of the cleric’s supporters.

Demonstrators attacked television journalists and photographers during Friday’s march and broke some cameras, local residents said.

“God protect you, Sheikh Assir,” other protesters cheered.

An audio recording was released on YouTube on Thursday that was said to be the voice of Assir, though it was badly distorted and therefore difficult to verify conclusively.

The message, which his supporters celebrated as proof that Assir is still alive, repeated the cleric’s claims that the army had conspired with Hezbollah to attack him.

Sporadic violence and rising regional tensions have strained fragile sectarian relations across Lebanon and sparked fears that Syria-related clashes could eventually plunge the tiny country back into war. Lebanon is still struggling to heal from its 1975-1990 civil war.

Reporting by Ali Hashisho, writing by Erika Solomon, Editing by Gareth Jones

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