At least 10 Lebanese soldiers were killed in ongoing clashes with Islamist gunmen in and around the eastern border town of Arsal, Lebanon’s army chief said on Sunday, in violence that has forced dozens of families to flee their homes for safety.
Gen. Jean Kahwaji said another 24 soldiers, including four officers, had been wounded in the fighting and that 13 others were thought to be missing.
Reuters quoted a doctor who works at a field hospital in Asral as saying that 10 civilians were killed, including refugees hit by shelling in the area. Arsal, a border town with Syria, hosts a significant number of Syrian refugees who have fled from the war in their country.
The clashes erupted after Islamists seized a police station following the arrest of one of their leaders on Saturday, Reuters news agency said, in an attack that Kahwaji said was “premeditated.”
“This terrorist attack that occurred yesterday [Saturday] was not an attack by chance or coincidence. It was planned previously, a long time ago, waiting for the appropriate time, which was during the last 48 hours,” Kahwaji.
He said the arrested commander had admitted to planning a large attack against army positions.
Nusra Front and ISIS
The gunmen carrying out the violence are believed to be “mainly from the Nusra Front,” Ahmad Ayyash, a political analyst and writer for An-Nahar newspaper, told Al Arabiya News on Sunday.
“But there are other factions from the [Syrian] opposition [fighting as well],” he added.
“Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, [Nusra Front fighters] have been the main body of Syrian opposition [in Lebanon],” he said, referring to fighters who sneaked into the town with Syrian refugees.
Reuters quoted security officials as saying that the gunmen included fighters linked to the Nusra Front as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The Nusra Front is one of the most powerful groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria while ISIS is an Al-Qaeda offshoot that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq and has declared its own Islamic State.
Fleeing the violence
Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA) said there was a “displacement” of Arsal’s residents and that many were fleeing toward the eastern city of Bekaa and other areas.
Adnan Gamlouch, Al Arabiya News Channel’s correspondent in Lebanon, confirmed to Al Arabiya News that at least 50 families had managed to make their way out of the town, taking advantage of a brief lull in the fighting Sunday afternoon.
“The rest are unable to flee because of the military operations being carried out against the militants,” Gamloush said.
However, Arsal’s mayor played down reports of a mass flight from the town.
“[The residents] will not leave… [and] no one will scare them out,” Ali Hujeiri told Al Arabiya News.
Fears of Iraqi scenario
Kahwaji, the army chief, expressed concern that the “Iraqi border scenario” could spread to Lebanon.
He also vowed to confront “takifiris” (Islamic extremist groups who believe people of other religious groups deserve death) militants inside Lebanese borders.
Kahwaji said he had also been the first to warn of the need to resolve the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon.
Lebanon has seen frequent violent in recent years linked to the war in neighboring Syria and hosts the region’s largest Syrian refugee population, which is thought to number more than one million, or a third of Lebanon’s population. Arsal alone reportedly hosts around 100,000 Syrian refugees.
The weekend clashes in Arsal erupted after the detention of Syrian Imad Ahmed Jumaa, who the army said had admitted being a member of Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda Syrian affiliate.
Angered by Jumaa’s arrest, gunmen in the area then surrounded army checkpoints Saturday afternoon before opening fire on troops and storming a police post, AFP quoted security sources as saying.
Kahwaji said Jumaa had been scouting for an attack against the military in the area.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Saturday condemning the attack by the militants while urging all “parties in Lebanon to respect the Lebanese government’s policy of disassociation from regional conflicts, as stated in the Baabda Declaration."
Lebanon has officially distanced itself from the war raging in Syria but different sides in the country, namely Iran-backed Hezbollah, have breached the “disassociation policy” by sending fighters to take part in the war next door.
"The United States is committed to Lebanon’s security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. We will continue our strong support for Lebanon’s state institutions, including the LAF and the ISF, as they work to preserve and protect a stable, sovereign, and secure Lebanon" the statement added.
(With Reuters and AFP)