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Tags: Lebanon | Islamists

Lebanese Army Advances in Border Battle with Islamists

Lebanese Army Advances in Border Battle with Islamists
Lebanese troops drive to the entrance of the town of Arsal in the Bekaa Valley on Aug. 3. (AFP/Getty Images)

Monday, 04 August 2014 08:44 AM EDT

OUTSKIRTS OF ARSAL, Lebanon — The Lebanese army advanced on Monday into a border town attacked by Islamists at the weekend in the most serious spillover of the three-year-old Syrian civil war into Lebanon.

The military pounded areas around the town of Arsal with artillery for a third day in a bid to expel the fighters identified by the army as members of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, which has seized wide areas of Syria and Iraq.

Advancing soldiers found the bodies of 50 militants, a Lebanese security official said.

At least 13 soldiers have been killed in the fighting, which erupted after the Lebanese security forces arrested a Syrian Islamist rebel commander, Emad Jumaa, on Saturday. At least two dozen members of the Lebanese security services — both army and police — have been taken hostage or are missing.

The army has described the Islamists' incursion as a long-planned attack. Local politicians say it marks an attempt to extend the Islamic State's footprint into Lebanon.

The militants have been beaten back in the border area in the past year by Syrian government forces backed by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim political and military movement. Some 3,000 fighters are estimated to be in the border zone.

Thick plumes of black and grey smoke billowed from the tops of the hills where Arsal lies. Intermittent bursts of gunfire could be heard from the surrounding areas as the army sent in reinforcements.

A dozen armored personnel carriers were seen advancing towards the town, together with a similar number of other military vehicles including trucks and Humvees. Soldiers armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades sat atop the vehicles as they moved along the main road towards Arsal.

In a statement, the army said it had taken full control of a school that militants had seized during the incursion. It said a number of soldiers had been killed and wounded in the fighting, but gave no further details.

Arsal is a mainly Sunni town located on the Lebanese side of the border between Syrian government-controlled territory and Lebanese Shi'ite areas sympathetic to Hezbollah.

Lebanon, still rebuilding from its own 1975-1990 civil war, has been buffeted by violence linked to the Syrian conflict including rocket attacks, suicide bombings and gun battles.

But this was the first major incursion by hardline Sunni militants who have become leading players in the Sunni-Shi'ite violence that has unfolded across the Levant, destabilizing Lebanon by exacerbating its own sectarian tensions.

More than 100,000 Syrian refugees are estimated to be living in and around Arsal. Syrian activists in the area say refugee camps have been heavily damaged during the fighting.

"The humanitarian situation is very bad. There is no place of refuge for the refugees," said one Syrian activist in the area reached by text message. "The residents are terrified."

A Syrian doctor in Arsal said on Sunday that 17 civilians had been killed.

Two army trucks were seen bringing several dozen civilians including women in headscarves and young children out of Arsal.

"What are we expecting? Our houses are being destroyed. God knows if our families are alive and well or dying," said Mohamed al-Fleti, a 25-year-old Lebanese man from Arsal as he sat in the shade of a tree by a gas station down the road from Arsal.

The war in Syria has deepened rifts between Shi'ite Lebanese allied to the Assad government and Sunnis who have mostly been supportive of the uprising against him. Political divisions have left the country without a president since May.

Lebanon's most influential Sunni politician, former prime minister Saad al-Hariri, said Arsal must be "liberated" from the militants who he said must leave the town.

"They have no choice but to withdraw from the town and neither the state, nor we, will stand idle in the face of the plots of these groups," Hariri, who is backed by Saudi Arabia, said in comments to the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.

Hezbollah, which is sponsored by Saudi arch-rival Iran, said on Sunday that it stood "shoulder to shoulder" with the military as it confronted what it said was a threat to the "unity, sovereignty and stability" of Lebanon.

Its forces are deployed in the area near Arsal, and Syrian activists have said Hezbollah has been involved in the fighting, though the group has not announced any role. Analysts said Hezbollah would keep quiet about any involvement to avoid further inflaming sectarian tensions.

The Syrian government condemned the "terrorist attacks and crimes against civilians and Lebanese army positions", adding that the Lebanese army must be supported in "its battle against extremist terrorism", the state news agency SANA reported.

The Saudi ambassador in Beirut, whose government has been a major sponsor of the anti-Assad uprising, said he had expressed "sorrow" at events and urged Lebanese show unity to "safeguard Lebanon's stability, integrity and sovereignty" during a meeting with Lebanon's parliament speaker, Nabih Berri.

© 2022 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

The Lebanese army advanced on Monday into a border town attacked by Islamists at the weekend in the most serious spillover of the three-year-old Syrian civil war into Lebanon.
Lebanon, Islamists
Monday, 04 August 2014 08:44 AM
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