Security Troops Clash With Tufeili Supporters; Tufeili on the Run
Lebanon, Local, 2/2/1998
Shiite maverick leader Sheikh Sobhi Tufeili was still on the run Monday as security troops continued to besiege his hometown of Brital in eastern Lebanon, where he is believed to be hiding along with his supporters
But the troops temporarily relaxed restrictions on entrances of the town to allow the burial of Sheik Khodr Tleiss, a former member of parliament and Tufeili's right-hand man, who was killed Friday in clashes between Tufeili's supporters and security troops
Heavy clashes erupted over the weekend in between security troops and Tufeili's followers, in which at least eight people were killed and over 50 others wounded.
Sheik Sobhi Tufeili has long been challenging the government's authority in the region, calling on his supporters to stop paying utility bills and forbidding ministers of setting foot in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. These calls were part of a "hunger revolt" Tufeili launched last year to force the government to improve living conditions in impoverished areas in eastern Lebanon, where he enjoys large following.
The Hizbullah guerrilla group last week expelled Tufeili from its ranks, citing policy differences. The cleric was the group's secretary-general in the 1980s, but currently has no official post in the party.
What prompted the expulsion was the staging by Tufeili of a rally to mark international Jerusalem Day last week, in the same place Hizbullah holds its rally every year. To protest his expulsion, Tufeili's supporters on Friday "occupied" a religious center belonging to Hizbullah, provoking the authorities to send army troops to the region, where 24-hour clashes killed at least eight people, including three soldiers and Tleiss.
The troops stormed the center, killing four of Tufeili's supporters in fierce clashes to evict the armed men. An army communique said army troops raided Tufeili's home near Baalbek and confiscated weapons, ammunition and "prohibited material."
Heavy troop deployment was observed in and around the city of Baalbek with armored personnel carriers and army tanks patrolling the streets.
The fighting had ebbed by Saturday afternoon but troops surrounded the mountain village of Brital, where Tufeili and his supporters were believed to be hiding.
Hizbullah guerrillas stayed out of the fighting and a statement issued by the groups urged the authorities to "spare" the residents of the village.
It was not clear whether the troops would storm the village to arrest Tufeili, declared a fugitive by the government on Saturday.
On Sunday, hundreds of Tufeili's supporters turned up for the funeral of Tleiss, which was held in his hometown of Brital, where Tufeili is thought to be taking refuge. There was no sign of the fugitive Sheik but an army statement said security troops were consolidating their deployment in the region in order to arrest him and his followers.
"Death to Nasrallah!" cried angry crowds at the procession. They also shouted slogans denouncing President Elias Hrawi and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Hariri, on a visit to Paris, was quoted as saying that Tufeili "was one hundred percent responsible" for what happened.
Hizbullah expels maverick sheikh and previous leader
Shiite leader presses ahead with hunger revolt
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