Ten Lebanese soldiers killed in Ersal clashes

A Lebanese army's tank drives to the entrance of the town of Ersal in the Bekaa valley by the Syrian border on August 2, 2014 as they arrive to secure the area where gunmen killed four people, including two soldiers. (Photo: AFP)

Published Sunday, August 3, 2014

Updated at 11:59 pm (GMT+3): Gunmen have killed ten Lebanese soldiers in clashes that erupted near the border with Syria after the army detained a suspected jihadist from the war-torn country, the military said Sunday.

The clashes are some of the worst violence to hit the tense border area of Ersal since the beginning of the war in neighboring Syria in 2011, with gunmen attacking Lebanese soldiers and police.

They broke out on Saturday afternoon, after the detention of a Syrian man, Imad Ahmed Jumaa, who the army said admitted to being a member of al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, al-Nusra Front.

On Sunday morning, the fighting was continuing, and the army said it had lost eight soldiers. But later reports said that two more soldiers have been killed in the ongoing clashes.

"Army units continued military operations in the Ersal area and its surroundings throughout the night and into the morning, pursuing and engaging armed groups," the military said.

"During the battles the army lost eight martyrs and a number of others have been wounded," it said in a statement.

An unknown number of militants and civilians, possibly dozens, have also been killed, and security sources say at least 16 members of Lebanon's security forces have been taken captive.

Lebanon's army chief said the Islamist attack was premeditated.

"This terrorist attack which occurred yesterday was not an attack by chance or coincidentally. It was planned previously, a long time ago, waiting for the appropriate time, which was during the last 48 hours," General Jean Kahwaji said in a televised news conference in Beirut.

Throughout the night, the army said, troops battled gunmen who fired mortar shells at Ersal and the surrounding region.

Residents said many of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who had taken shelter in the hills around Ersal had abandoned their camps and were sleeping in the town's streets to escape bombardment. Fires had broken out in some camps. 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 Ersal, adding that the hospital had recorded 17 civilians killed so far.

The clashes began when gunmen angered by Jumaa's arrest surrounded Lebanese army checkpoints before opening fire on troops and storming a police post in the town of Ersal, security sources said.

Two civilians were reported killed in the storming of the police post, and the gunmen were said to have taken hostage a number of policemen, though there was no immediate confirmation.

Earlier, the army said two soldiers had been briefly held by the gunmen, before troops were able to free them.

The army warned of the seriousness of the situation and insisted it would "not allow any party to transfer the battle from Syria to its territory (Lebanon)."

"The army will be decisive and firm in its response and will not remain silent as foreigners try to turn our land into a field for crime and terrorism, murder and kidnapping."

The outbreak of violence caused tensions in the northern city of Tripoli, where militants who back the Syrian uprising have regularly fought Lebanese security forces and residents who back Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

A security source said two soldiers were wounded in the clashes in Tripoli which involved gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade explosive devices.

The violence in Ersal prompted domestic and international concern, with the US State Department urging all parties to respect Lebanon's policy of "dissociation" from the Syrian conflict.

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the Ersal assault as a "flagrant attack on the Lebanese state and the Lebanese armed forces."

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."

The army has deployed additional forces, including two helicopters, to the region to deal with the outbreak of violence.

Lebanese military vehicles have deployed around Ersal 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 briefly by phone. "Very, very bad."

Ersal, which is hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, has frequently been the scene of conflict with Lebanese security forces.

Syria's army has also launched regular air raids and shelled the area around Ersal, saying it is targeting rebels who have holed up in the mountainous region surrounding the border town.

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.

Tensions skyrocketed there earlier this year with a major influx of refugees and fighters after Syrian forces backed by members of the allied Lebanese Hezbollah movement recaptured most of the Qalamoun region, just across the border.

Despite the regime's recapture of most of Qalamoun, pockets of opposition forces, including jihadists from al-Nusra and the Islamic State group remain in the area.

Jihadists engaged in fierce clashes with the regime in the Qalamoun region on Friday night, with at least 50 fighters killed, according to Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

According to the Observatory, more than 170,000 people have been killed since Syria's conflict began in March 2011, and the violence has regularly spilled into neighboring Lebanon, which is hosting more than a million Syrian refugees.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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