BEIRUT: Lebanese soldiers traded fire with gunmen and shelled areas around the border town of Arsal on Sunday aiming to roll back the biggest incursion by militants into Lebanon since Syria’s civil war began.
At least 10 Lebanese soldiers have died in the fighting, which erupted after Islamists seized a police station following the arrest of one of their leaders on Saturday - an attack that army chief General Jean Kahwaji said was premeditated.
“What happened is far more dangerous than some believe,” Kahwaji told reporters in Beirut, saying the arrested commander had admitted to planning a large attack against army positions.
“The terrorist attack which occurred yesterday was not an attack by chance or coincidence. It was planned previously, a long time ago, awaiting the appropriate time,” he said.
An unknown number of militants and civilians, possibly dozens, were also killed in the fighting. More than a dozen members of Lebanon’s security forces were taken captive.
Security officials say the gunmen in Arsal include fighters linked to the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq, as well as Syria’s al Qaeda branch, the Nusra Front.
Bombardment of the area prompted a large number of the tens of thousands of refugees sheltering in the area to flee, residents said. Television images showed plumes of black smoke rising from the mountainous area around the town.
“They’re shelling from all directions,” said Qassem Al-Zein, a doctor at the field hospital in Arsal, adding that the hospital had recorded 10 civilians killed so far, including refugees hit by the shelling.
Lebanon, a Mediterranean country of about 4 million people that borders Israel, has struggled with the shockwaves of Syria’s three-year-old conflict, whose sectarian dimensions echo those of its own 1975-90 civil war.
Suicide attacks, car bombs, gun battles, kidnappings and rocket fire have plagued Lebanon, but the confrontation in Arsal has been the biggest direct clash between its army and rebels fighting to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah had deployed its fighters around Arsal, a Sunni town sandwiched between Syrian government-controlled territory and Lebanese Shi’ite areas sympathetic to the group, a source said on Saturday.
Syrian activists in the town said Hezbollah appeared to have been involved in the fighting, but this was not possible to verify and the group did not comment on that point.
Hezbollah fighters have regularly taken part in battles against the Sunni rebels just over the border in Syria’s Qalamoun region for months, helping the Assad government forces to flush out insurgents from towns and villages near the border.
In its first statement on the crisis, Hezbollah 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.
Lebanon has been buffeted by the same waves of conflict that have brought about the rise of hardline Sunni militants in Syria and Iraq. On Sunday, Islamic State fighters seized Iraq’s biggest dam, an oilfield and three towns.
Kahwaji said Lebanon’s army would resist any attempts to import Syria’s war into his country. Earlier on Sunday, fighting erupted briefly in Lebanon’s main northern coastal city of Tripoli, where Syria’s war has enflamed decades-old tensions between local Sunnis and Alawites.
Soldiers battled masked gunmen overnight and into Sunday after militants opened fire on army positions in several areas of the port, the National News Agency said. A bomb also targeted an army patrol, wounding an officer and a soldier, it said.
Officials across Lebanon’s political spectrum have condemned the Arsal attack, but in a sign of the country’s own deep tensions some also took the opportunity to criticize their foes. Jamil al-Sayyed, a Shia and former head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, said responsibility for what was happening in Arsal fell on the Sunni-led Future Movement bloc.
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