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Lebanon Battles Syrian Rebels in Border Town


Lebanese army soldiers point towards the direction of the mountain where clashes is taking place with Islamist militants, near the entrance leading to Arsal, near the Syrian border in Lebanon, August 3, 2014.

Lebanese soldiers traded fire with Islamist gunmen and shelled areas around the border town of Arsal on Sunday in a push to dislodge the biggest incursion by militants into Lebanon since Syria's civil war began.

The fighting erupted Saturday at the border town of Arsal after the rebels were angered by the Lebanese detention of a Syrian, Imad Ahmad Jomaa, who is believed to be a member of al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, Al-Nusra Front. It is one of the most powerful groups fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

At least 10 Lebanese soldiers have been killed in the fighting. And, Lebanese officials said Sunday they believe the Syrian rebels have captured at least 12 members of Lebanese security forces.

Attack called premeditated

Army Chief General Jean Kahwaji said the attack 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.

Gunmen drive away with about a dozen men, two in camouflage police uniforms, in Arsal, a Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Aug 2, 2014.
Gunmen drive away with about a dozen men, two in camouflage police uniforms, in Arsal, a Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Aug 2, 2014.

A security source said that a civilian had been killed by sniper fire inside Arsal, raising the civilian death toll in the fighting to three.

The Lebanese army warned of the seriousness of fighting and vowed to keep the Syrian conflict from spreading into its much-smaller country.

Arsal has long been a tinderbox for Lebanon's tensions. Rebels operating across the border in Syria's mountainous Qalamoun region have frequently crossed the porous border, often resting or seeking medical treatment in town.

Lebanon is hosting more than 1 million refugees who have fled Syria's conflict. More than 100,000 of them are estimated to be living in and around Arsal in makeshift camps spread throughout the surrounding hills.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) told the French news agency AFP it was "monitoring closely" the situation in Arsal but had no details on whether refugees had been affected by the fighting.

US reaction

The U.S. State Department strongly condemned the rebels' attack, calling on all the warring sides to respect Beirut's policy of "dissociation" from the fighting in Syria.

The US ambassador to Lebanon also met Kahwaji on Sunday to express support, the American embassy in Beirut said.

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam called the raid an attack against Lebanon and its people. He called the assault a "flagrant attack on the Lebanese state and the Lebanese armed forces."

Salam said his government will not tolerate chaos and let matters get out of control. He called on "all political forces to exercise wisdom and responsibility and to make every effort to protect Lebanon and distance it from the dangers around it."

Salam said the army is working to restore security and stability in the Arsal region.

Lebanese military vehicles have deployed around Arsal and shelled the area while Syrian warplanes have been bombing rebel positions in the town's environs, residents say.

"The situation is bad," Arsal's mayor Ali al-Hujeiri said when reached by Reuters briefly by phone. "Very, very bad."

Cross-border violence

Violence stemming from the fighting in Syria often spills over into Lebanon.

Lebanese-based Hezbollah extremists have fought alongside Syrian government forces against the rebels trying to topple the Assad regime.

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.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AFP.