BEIRUT — Lebanese troops fired in the air Friday to disperse dozens of Sunni Muslims demonstrating in support of a hardline cleric who has been on the run since the military crushed his fighters earlier this week.
Lebanon is grappling with rising tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims linked to the more than 2-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria, which has sparked deadly street fighting on several occasions in Lebanese cities between the rival sects.
The Lebanese military moved Friday to break up the demonstration in the southern port city of Sidon after protesters tried to reach the mosque complex where the Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir used to give his sermons. There were similar protests by Sunnis in the capital Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon's third largest.
Protesters briefly closed the highway linking Beirut with Tripoli Friday afternoon and damaged a Lebanese army statue near the northern city, the state-run National News Agency said.
Al-Assir's compound has been under army control since Monday following two days of fighting between troops and al-Assir's followers that left dozens of people dead.
The cleric's rapid rise in popularity among Sunnis underscored the deep frustration of many Lebanese who resent the influence Shiites have gained in government via the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Al-Assir has been one of Hezbollah's harshest critics in Lebanon and had called on fellow Sunnis to go fight in Syria against President Bashar Assad's forces. His calls intensified earlier this year after Hezbollah fighters joined Assad's forces against the Syrian opposition, which is dominated by Sunnis.
Syria's conflict has increasingly taken on sectarian overtones. The rebels fighting to remove Assad are primarily Sunnis, and have been joined by Sunni fighters from other Muslim countries. Assad's regime, in contrast, is led by the president's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and his forces have been bolstered by fighters from Hezbollah, a factor that has helped fan the sectarian nature of the conflict.
Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed. Lebanon, a country plagued by decades of strife, has been on edge since the uprising in Syria against Assad erupted in March 2011.
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 with increasing frequency.
On Friday, troops fired into the air with heavy machine guns mounted on armored personnel carriers to disperse the protesters. People ran in fear in the streets as cars sped away from the area.
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.
Official reports said at least 18 soldiers were killed and 50 wounded in the fighting, while more than 20 of al-Assir's supporters died in the battle.
Some Sunni activists said the army was joined by Hezbollah fighters in the battle against al-Assir, a claim that the army denied.
Sidon's demonstration started after thousands attended Friday prayers in a mosque in the city center. The prayer was attended by a prominent ultraconservative Sunni Salafi cleric from northern Lebanon, Daia Al-Islam Al-Shahal, and the Sunni mufti of Sidon, Sheik Salim Soussan.
Soussan urged the army to open a "fair, objective and legal investigation" into the fighting in Sidon.
"We totally reject that some illegitimate armed groups take part in the raids, provocations and interrogation of people," Soussan said in an apparent reference to Hezbollah. "We put the state responsible for that."
Earlier in the day, a roadside bomb went off on a highway near the eastern city of Zahleh, in the Bekaa Valley, without causing casualties. Local TV stations said the morning bomb hit three SUVs carrying Hezbollah members.
There have been two other similar incidents in the eastern Bekaa Valley over the past weeks.