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Saturday, January 31, 1998 Published at 16:09 GMT

World: Middle East

Lebanese army hunts down radical cleric

The Lebanese army has launched a massive manhunt for a radical Shi'ite Muslim cleric after a battle between government troops and his supporters left 8 people dead and about 50 wounded.

The cleric, Sheikh Sobhi Tufaili, who was expelled from the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement last week, took over a Hezbollah-run religious school on the outskirts of the eastern city of Baalbek with a group of armed followers.

[ image: Sheikh Tufaili: expelled by Hezbollah]
Sheikh Tufaili: expelled by Hezbollah
The Lebanese army moved in late on Friday after attempts at mediation failed. Fierce clashes followed.

Among those reported killed in the fighting were a former MP, an army officer and a civilian woman.

Troops backed by armoured cars seized the sheikh's house on the edge of Baalbek.

The army said in a statement: "Following the decision of the military prosecutor to order the arrest of Sheikh Sobhi Tufaili and his supporters on charges of forming armed groups, endangering national security and killing soldiers and civilians, the army took control of Sheikh Tufaili's house."

[ image: Lebanese army took control of Tufaili's house]
Lebanese army took control of Tufaili's house
Sheikh Tufaili and the remainder of his armed group are believed to have fled into a nearby village, which has now been surrounded.

A radical past

Sheikh Tufaili was one of Hezbollah's leaders during the 1980s when it took foreigners hostage and carried out suicide bombings.

Lebanese expert Fida Nasrallah: Tufaili has support amongst the poor (3'00")
However, since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1991, Hezbollah has attempted to move into mainstream politics and has distanced itself from more hard-line elements.

In recent months, Sheikh Tufaili has been attempting to galvanise public support in the mainly Shi'a Bekaa Valley by holding a series of rallies to protest about worsening economic and social conditions.

A BBC correspondent in Beirut says the country's political elite hope that Friday's clashes mark the end of Sheikh Tufaili's attempts to recreate his radical image.


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