BEIRUT — Lebanese troops detonated booby traps at a complex captured from followers of a hardline Sunni cleric on Tuesday, securing the area after two days of fighting that left dozens dead in the port city of Sidon.
Soldiers who blocked off several office and residential buildings around the mosque where Ahmad al-Assir once preached told reporters they were clearing the complex of explosives. An Associated Press photographer on the scene heard several explosions and saw black smoke billowing during the operation.
The fate of Al-Assir, a maverick Sunni sheik who controlled the complex for about two years, is unknown. His rapid rise in popularity among Sunnis underscored the deep frustration of many Lebanese who resent the influence Shiites have gained in government via the militant group Hezbollah.
Official reports said at least 17 soldiers were killed and 50 were wounded in the fighting while more than 20 of al-Assir's supporters died in the battle, according to a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.
The fighting, some of the worst involving Lebanese troops in years, was seen as a test of the weak government's ability to contain the furies unleashed by the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Despite the heavy death toll, the military appeared to have successfully put down the threat from al-Assir and his armed supporters by late Monday.
The officials said troops raided several apartments around Sidon on Tuesday in search of al-Assir's followers. Security was tight in hospitals where wounded militants were being treated, they added, with even relatives prevented from visiting them.
"I was surprised. This was not a mosque. It was a security center," outgoing Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told reporters after touring the Bilal bin Rabbah complex in Sidon where al-Assir's supporters had been holed up. He said among the detainees who were fighting with al-Assir were foreigners.
"They brought in foreigners to kill Lebanese," Charbel said, without giving nationalities other than a Sudanese who was detained Tuesday.
President Michel Suleiman said in a statement that army command has been given the "political support" to retaliate against groups that threaten national security.
By noon, streets around al-Assir's complex were packed with people who came to inspect their homes and shops, many of which were damaged during the fighting. Lebanese commandos patrolled streets littered with cars that were burnt-out and riddled with bullets.
Inside the complex, a seven-story building was pockmarked with shells and bullet holes and the top two floors appeared totally burnt. The small mosque where al-Assir preached appeared intact. Troops had avoided hitting it directly.
A woman who came to the area weeping asked to be allowed to enter the complex to see if her son was there. "I saw his picture on TV and he was dead," she screamed, before soldiers directed her search to the hospital morgue.
Earlier Tuesday, the bodies of six fighters were found in the complex and on roofs of nearby buildings. They were later taken away in Lebanese Red Cross ambulances.
The state-run National News Agency reported Tuesday that military prosecutor Saqr Saqr has asked military intelligence to open an investigation into the Sidon clashes and begin interrogating some 40 detainees. On Monday, Saqr issued arrest warrants for al-Assir and 123 of his supporters.
The U.S. embassy in Beirut urged Americans to avoid all travel to Lebanon because of safety and security concerns. "U.S. citizens living and working in Lebanon should understand that they accept risks in remaining and should carefully consider those risks," it said.
"We condemn in the strongest terms the attacks by militants against the Lebanese Armed Forces, which have resulted in the deaths of a number of soldiers and civilians," said U.S. State Department Acting Deputy Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell. He added that the U.S. is fully committed to Lebanon's stability, sovereignty, and independence and said Washington will continue to assist and train security forces.
Sidon, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Beirut, had largely been spared from violence plaguing Lebanon's border areas where Syria's civil war has been spilling over. Fighting in the Mediterranean city began Sunday after troops arrested an al-Assir follower. The army says the cleric's supporters opened fire without provocation on an army checkpoint.
The fighting in Sidon is the bloodiest involving the army since the military fought a three-month battle in 2007 against the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam group inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon. The Lebanese army crushed the group, but the clashes killed more than 170 soldiers.
Syria's civil war has been bleeding into Lebanon for the past year, following similar sectarian lines of Sunni and Shiite camps. Overstretched and outgunned by militias, the military has struggled on multiple fronts in the eastern Bekaa valley and the northern city of Tripoli, where armed factions have fought street battles that often last several days.
Al-Assir, a 45-year-old cleric, supports the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb exploded on the key highway linking Beirut to the Syrian capital without causing casualties, security officials said. They said the small bomb went off early in the morning near the town of Barr Elias, a few kilometers (miles) from the border crossing point of Masnaa.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. It was the second such attack on the highway within weeks.