SIDON, Lebanon: Sheikh Ahmad Assir defied calls Thursday to end his blockade of a vital highway linking Beirut with south Lebanon, insisting that Hezbollah first accept to discuss its arsenal with the state.
“I won’t end the protest until our demands are met,” Assir told The Daily Star from the northern entrance to this southern port city, where he and his supporters are camped out.
His remarks came shortly after officials in this southern port city urged the Lebanese government to put an end to Assir’s road blockade.
Asked to verify rumors that he would call off the sit-in on July 25 to coincide with a fresh round of National Dialogue, Assir said: “We shall continue with the sit-in unless we are informed by authorities that the resistance party [Hezbollah] has accepted to discuss its weapons.”
Representatives of Sidon's municipality, Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, Traders' Association, Federation of Trade Unions and Employees as well as civil society met at mid-morning Thursday to discuss the road closures.
“We call on the Lebanese authorities to take full responsibility, lift the siege of [Sidon] as quickly as possible and remove all the appearances that are offensive to the city of Sidon, its people, and its economic and national roles,” said a statement issued at the end of their meeting.
The sit-in by Assir and his supporters on Sidon’s highway has hurt merchants’ livelihoods and limited road travel between Beirut and Sidon to two routes, causing much traffic congestion on weekends.
Assir, who began his protest against Hezbollah’s arms June 28, is blocking the highway at the northern entrance to Sidon.
While the meeting was under way at Sidon’s Chamber of Commerce, dozens of merchants took to the streets in Sidon to protest the ongoing blockade of the Beirut-Sidon-south Lebanon highway.
The merchants, who claim that Assir's sit-in has harmed business, demonstrated at the “Elia” crossroads near Sidon’s electricity headquarters and a series of malls.
The intersection links Sidon to Beirut and the south. It also serves as an exit to Jezzine, east of Sidon.
The demonstrators brandished banners criticizing Assir for affecting their livelihoods with his protest.
In his comments to the Daily Star, Assir ridiculed the merchants’ demonstration.
“I don’t think the merchants are going to go bankrupt in 15 days or so,” he said in reference to his two-week sit-in.
“How come the merchants did not complain when businesses were affected during the 2006 [Israel-Lebanon] war, which lasted 33 days?” Assir asked.
There was no immediate comment from Lebanese authorities on the Sidon appeal.
Assir claimed to have obtained information, supported by pictures, about the Lebanese Army being trained alongside members of the Civil Defense to end a protest.
“The exercises might be designed with us in mind,” Assir said. “But we came here to die.”
Assir said he has also ordered his men to erect a barbed wire fence around the protest site “to protect our women and children” after having received information that “Shabiha” might attack.