The Lebanese army advanced into a northeastern border town with Syria on Monday in an effort to expel Islamists who over the weekend killed more than a dozen soldiers, as the Lebanese government ruled out any political deal with the militants.
The army pounded areas around Arsal artillery for a third day in a bid to expel the fighters thought to belong to the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Advancing soldiers found the bodies of 50 militants, Reuters quoted a Lebanese security official as saying.
At least 13 soldiers have been killed in the fighting, which erupted after the Lebanese security forces arrested a Syrian Islamist rebel commander 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 ISIS’ 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 Shiite Muslim political and military movement.
Some 3,000 fighters are estimated to be in the border zone.
Thousand forced to flee
The clashes in Arsal forced thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees to flee the town, the Associated Press reported. Arsal hosts about 100,000 Syrian refugees.
Among those fleeing was Aziza Rayed, in her 60s, who said her family was going to the nearby border town of Qaa.
"We are leaving to take these children to a safer place," she said, her children and grandchildren in the back of a pickup truck.
Residents fleeing Arsal said they made use of a relative lull in the fighting between midnight and Monday morning to pack up and leave.
Shortly after, heavy fighting resumed and black smoke could be seen billowing over the town. These recent clashes have been barred from the media by the Lebanese army.
The government on Monday ruled out any negotiations with the militants.
"There are no political solutions with [the extremists] who are tampering with Arab societies under oppressive, alien religious slogans," Prime Minister Tammam Salam said in a televised statement read at the end of a cabinet meeting.
Salam said the only solution was for the militants to withdraw from Arsal. The government had decided to mobilize all state institutions to defend the country, Salam –flanked by the entire cabinet – added.
Individual parties in the country also voiced support for the Army initiative in Arsal.
Saad Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister and the head of the Western-backed March 14 coalition, said he supported the military in its efforts to prevent Arsal falling into the hands of Islamists fighters.
Hariri, in a statement published in pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper, said he stood by the army “to return the steadfast town of Arsal to the state because its residents have no alternative than the state and liberating the town from ‘SIS’ and ‘Nusra Front‘ who have taken it hostage.”
He described the country’s security forces as a “red line.”
“Attacks against them are prohibited and this is our strategic and fixed stance toward the Takfiri groups,” he said.
A Hezbollah official, meanwhile, promised his party would support the army against the militants.
“We won’t leave the army alone and all back the army whose blood is mixed with citizens confronting the Israeli aggression and in defense of Lebanon and its independence,” Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek said, according to the country’s National News Agency.
“I call on residents of villages that are close the clashes to be ready to face the [militants] ... we should all be ready,” he said.
Hezbollah identifies itself as part of the “rejectionist axis,” which is made up of Iran, Syria and Hamas. The party blames much of the unrest in the region on Israel, its longtime foe.
(With Reuters and AP)