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FILE PHOTO: Lebanese hardline Sunni Islamist cleric Ahmad al-Assir speaks during a news conference at his office in Sidon, southern Lebanon, May 14, 2012. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho/File Photo


BEIRUT (Reuters) - A hardline Sunni Muslim cleric was sentenced to death in Lebanon on Thursday for inciting attacks on the army, as his supporters protested outside the court.

Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who refused to recognise the hearing, was convicted for his part in clashes that erupted amid heightened sectarian tensions in 2013, exacerbated by the war in neighbouring Syria.

Assir rose to prominence supporting the mostly Sunni insurgents in Syria and condemning the backers of the Syrian government, including Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah group.

Lebanese soldiers raided a mosque complex belonging to Assir in June 2013, after skirmishes between his supporters and opponents in the southern Mediterranean port city of Sidon.

The army said at least 18 soldiers died in fighting with Assir's supporters, which raised fears at the time of sectarian violence spreading in Lebanon. (http://reut.rs/2xBmdx6)

Assir went into hiding and was arrested two years later at Beirut airport, trying to get out with a false passport.

He rejected his court-appointed lawyer during the trial, which has been delayed several times. Dozens of his supporters protested outside the court in Beirut and in Sidon on Thursday.

The court also convicted more than 30 others, some in absentia, for their part in the violence, imposing sentences ranging from six months in prison to death.

Lebanese singer-turned-militant Fadel Shaker was sentenced in absentia to 15 years. Lebanon has not carried out an execution for at least 10 years.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by John Stonestreet and Andrew Heavens)

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