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Calm has been restored in southern Lebanon for now. Clashes between the army and followers of a radical Sunni cleric have left dozens dead over the past two days. It's been called the most violent spillover from the conflict in Syria to a neighboring country. And now, a manhunt is under way for that cleric, Ahmed al-Assir.
NPR's Kelly McEvers traveled from Beirut to the scene of the violence today in Sidon, also known as Saida in Arabic.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: So we're standing right here next to a KFC restaurant in the area of Abra in the city of Saida. This is where the trouble began on Sunday night. There are two versions of the story. If you ask the local residents, they say that followers of Sheikh Assir were stopped at a checkpoint, pulled from a car and detained. And that's when more of their supporters came down from the mosque, which is just up the road, and started fighting with soldiers, and that the soldiers fought back.
If you ask the army, they say they were attacked first. They say they were shot first by Assir's supporters. Either way, by the end of it, two days later, we know that more than a dozen Lebanese soldiers are dead, probably 40 gunmen are dead, two civilians are dead, and dozens more people are wounded and injured.
Over the past year, Assir has become a leading figure among Sunnis here in Lebanon, Sunnis who support the rebellion in Syria and Sunnis who oppose the Shiite militia Hezbollah. Assir often preached that military power should rest with Lebanon's army, not with private militias. That was until he and his men violently clashed with the army.
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MCEVERS: The fighting over the past two days mostly centered around Assir's mosque. This building overlooks that mosque. Up on the fifth floor, Abu Alaa tells us he and his children had to flee their apartment when the fighting started.
ABU ALAA: (Through Translator) We stayed 24 hours on the staircase.
MCEVERS: On the staircase? Right here. With how many children?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
ALAA: (Through Translator) Ten kids.
MCEVERS: By the time the fighting stopped, the army had regained control of Saida, and the cleric, Ahmed al-Assir, had escaped. Now, workers sweep the glass in front of Haythem Ezzou's shops. He said rocket-propelled grenades were flying back and forth during the fight. One big explosion wrecked his businesses.
HAYTHEM EZZOU: (Through Translator) A bomb that dropped here and exploded and all the shrapnels hit the window.
MCEVERS: We're standing in front of, like, four shops here, and three of the windows have been shot - blown out, yeah? Yeah.
EZZOU: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Ah, yeah. And this window too. So there's a pile of broken glass here.
Ezzou says he's just happy no one in his family got hurt. He says he agreed with the cleric Assir's ideas but not after his men started using guns.
EZZOU: (Through Translator) He lost legitimacy. He lost popularity. People stopped sympathizing with him.
MCEVERS: By the end of the day, there were some reports that Assir had left Lebanon or was hiding in a nearby camp for Palestinian refugees. But by the time we left town, there was no unusual activity at the camp. Armed personnel carriers rolled out of Saida with the soldiers who appeared to have restored order to the city, for now. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.
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