Lebanese army enters Ersal

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Published Friday, August 8, 2014

Updated at 5:50 pm (GMT +3)The Lebanese army entered Ersal Friday evening, and set up checkpoints in the western side of the city, security sources told AFP.

The battle in Ersal flattened refugee camps and material assets, marking it the most serious spillover of violence into Lebanon since the Syrian civil war erupted three years ago.

On Friday morning, the army arrested an Islamist militant sniper, who was positioned on top of the Abou Ismail mosque, while most gunmen withdrew from the eastern Bekaa town of Ersal on Thursday.

Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA) said that the sniper provided cover for withdrawing jihadists. Twelve warrants had been previously issued against him, and he had been accused of throwing hand grenades at a police branch in Ersal that wounded 2 officers.

Seventeen soldiers and 42 civilians have been killed, and more than 268 have been wounded, according to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The fierce clashes began Saturday after security forces arrested an Islamist commander popular with local rebels who’ve pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda branch, al-Nusra Front (NF), and al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who often move across the porous border with Syria. Soon after the arrest, gunmen attacked local security forces and seized the town.

The NF tweeted Thursday night that it handed over six more soldiers of the 20 they held hostage “as a gesture of goodness,” the NNA said.

On Thursday, three policemen, members of the Internal Security Forces, who were captured earlier this week by the gunmen were found in a hospital on the southern edges of Ersal. Another seven, who were held hostage by the jihadists, were released to the army, reported the NNA.

Amid the brokered truce between the delegation of Muslim Scholars and the Lebanese army, at least 1,700 Syrian refugees departed Ersal in an attempt to go back to Syria, a nun helping them returned had told AFP Thursday.

The departure appeared to be the first time a group of refugees has left Lebanon en masse to return to Syria.

Sister Agnes, based in Syria, told AFP a first group of 350 refugees who left the town of Ersal yesterday passed through the Masnaa border crossing back into Syria on Friday.

However, the majority of the displaced were not able to cross the northern Masnaa border reportedly because of illegal entry to Lebanon, and have dispersed in Lebanese territory.

Friday morning, the army launched a series of raids in Syrian refugee camps in the Bekaa and Akkar regions, reported the NNA.

A number of suspected refugees were apprehended in the Akkari Syrian camp of Khirbit Daoud, near Dreeb Akkar, while seven Syrians were arrested in an east Baalbek camp in Tylia for lacking identification documents.

Another two were arrested in Ein al-Jawzeh for the same reason.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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