SIDON, Lebanon (AFP) – Several hundred people protested in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon on Friday in support of Ahmed al-Assir, a radical cleric on the run since deadly clashes between his supporters and the army.
Marchers set out from the Bilal bin Rabah mosque in Sidon's Abra district, which had been Assir's stronghold before fierce battles with the army in the area last month.
At least 18 soldiers and 11 Assir supporters were killed in the clashes, which ended with the cleric declared a fugitive and security services launching a nationwide manhunt.
Some 300 people, mostly youths and women in full face veils, took to the streets on Friday chanting "God protect Sheikh Assir" and carrying photos of the controversial cleric.
Assir was a virtual unknown before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, but gained a name for himself with public and increasingly vitriolic criticism of the powerful Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
He accuses the group of being a stooge of Iran, a key Hezbollah ally, and has railed against the movement's formidable arsenal and decision to send fighters to back the Syrian regime against rebels.
"We will never accept the Iranian occupation in Sidon," his supporters chanted on Friday.
After marching for several hundred metres (yards), the protesters began harassing and hitting journalists before the army intervened and told reporters to leave "for their own safety".
Assir, who has not been seen since the end of the fighting on June 24, issued a defiant audio message on Thursday calling on his supporters to turn out to protest.
He also accused the army of collaborating with Hezbollah against him, saying the Shiite group had led and supervised the fighting in Sidon.
"The army is Lebanese by name... but controlled by Iran," he added.
"Shame on the army commander and shame on this army and shame on all officials aware that the party (Hezbollah) managed this battle in a direct manner."
The conflict in Syria, pitting a Sunni-led opposition against President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has exacerbated sectarian tensions in Lebanon.