Lebanese army cracks down on al-Nusra Front in Ersal

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Lebanese army soldiers stationed outside a neighborhood in Beirut after capturing a wanted jihadist earlier this year. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Rameh Hamieh

Published Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Lebanese army intensified its security measures near the country’s borders with Syria’s Qalamoun region amid a crackdown on al-Nusra Front militants fleeing Syria. The military operation will in fact take some time, and is expected to further intensify if the Syrian army decides to regain control over al-Zabadani.

After the battle in Syria’s Qalamoun subsided and the army seized back most towns and villages neighboring the Lebanese border, the threat of militants fleeing to Lebanon turned into a serious crisis.

Ersal, a Lebanese border town that has been dragged into the Syrian crisis since the onset of the conflict, has turned into a vital site for al-Nusra Front and other militants who have been attacking Lebanese residents and Syrian refugees alike, committing murders, theft and kidnappings for ransom. Many citizens have also been prevented from reaching their lands on the outskirts of the town.

However, early on Friday, June 13, troops from the army’s Airborne Regiment patrolled the town’s barren ranges and raided refugee camps in Wadi Hamid, mainly targeting the Martyrs’ Camp, to arrest fugitives and seize logistic equipment.

Measures taken by the Lebanese army, along with the military campaign launched by the Syrian army a few months ago, mitigated the effect of militants pouring into Lebanon and stopped bomb-rigged cars and suicide bombers from reaching deep into Lebanese territory.

Distressed, militants besieged in barren mountains recently began to push deeper into the Lebanese territory, seeking food and cash.

In addition to the threat they pose, information received by security forces suggested that some militants were planning to erect residential buildings in Ersal’s rugged hills, paving the way for a permanent foothold in the border area, which pushed the army to take action.

Meanwhile, information from al-Zabadani suggests that the Syrian army will soon launch a military operation to retake the region, which will lead more militants to head toward Lebanon.

Lebanese military sources confirmed to Al-Akhbar that “the Lebanese army is determined to preserve security in the border regions and to stop militants from attacking citizens,” adding that “the operation is proceeding slowly but that its results are guaranteed.”

The sources stressed on the importance of “coordinating with the Syrian armed forces in the coming period because coordination was limited in the past during Qalamoun battle.” The sources added, “It is important for the two countries to coordinate if the Syrian armed forces launch an operation in al-Zabadani.”

On the ground, Friday’s army raids in search of militants and terrorist suspects led to the arrest of five individuals “confirmed of having received training with terrorist groups,” a security official told Al-Akhbar.

Zaher. A, a member of Abdullah Azzam Brigades, in addition to four others, Nour C, Adel G, Mohamed G and Haytham G were among those arrested, the source revealed.

According to the official, the cameras, computers and CDs that were seized “prove that the militants have received training with terrorist groups.” Wireless communication devices, cell phones and IDs were also found with them.

Although the army campaign was hailed in Ersal, some residents complained about “restricting it to the town, instead of expanding [the operation] to the ranges where militants are preventing us from inspecting our land and benefiting from it,” one of Ersal’s prominent residents told Al-Akhbar.

The man revealed that a local named Abdel Rahman al-Houjairi “was hit with a bullet in the chest while inspecting his field in the area,” explaining that “militants showed no mercy for a 65-year-old man who remains today in intensive care, suspended between life and death.”

He urged the army “to do more than just conduct a raid every month or so,” and called upon it to “patrol the area daily to prevent the militants’ violations.”

However, the military operations have not yet succeeded in releasing Mekhayel Mourad, a Ras Baalbek resident who was kidnapped by al-Nusra Front militants four days ago from a rock crushing plant at his town’s outskirts.

Security forces have also been unable to uncover the fate of two Syrian refugees who came from the town of Qara, Mahmoud and Atef al-Badawi, who were kidnapped by al-Nusra Front militants from inside their refugee camp at the outskirts of Ersal, while a third relative named Ahmed Youssed al-Badawi, 32, was killed after being accused of spying for the Syrian regime.

Security forces have also been unable to gather any information regarding the fate of other kidnapped individuals.

The killing of al-Badawi reminded locals of the communiqué distributed in Ersal last February, threatening to execute “people from the towns of Qara, al-Maara and al-Jraijir who cooperate with the Syrian regime.” At the time, the bodies of Ali al-Naqshi and others were retrieved while security forces have yet to resolve any of those crimes.

Within this framework, mayor of Ras Baalbek, Michel al-Arja told Al-Akhbar , “We have not received any information about Mekhayel Mourad until yesterday afternoon,” saying that kidnappers asked the rock crashing plant owner, Refaat Meshref, for a US$ 150,000 ransom to release Mourad and return the machines and equipment they stole.

Arja revealed that, “We are communicating with our friends in Ersal who are negotiating with militants and we were promised yesterday afternoon that he was going to be released.”

However, Arja did not seem very confident and urged, “the Lebanese state to step in to protect its citizens and liberate Mourad,” calling upon the army to “deploy soldiers from its two barracks in the region to protect Ras Baalbek from attacks, since the plant’s incident, which included kidnapping and theft, was the fifth in just a few months.”

Meanwhile, Syrian army intelligence services arrested a man named Yehya Abdullah al-Hussein in Mashari al-Qaa region and seized drugs in his possession. The man is thought to belong to the group of Omar al-Atrash, an Ersal local who has already been arrested by the Lebanese army and charged with terrorism. The army also arrested Hussein Ali al-Atrash, accused of stealing motorbikes.

In the meantime, Syrian military planes carried out air strikes near the border with al-Tufail village, targeting militants from al-Nusra Front that “tried to sneak into the Syrian village of Rankous while some al-Nusra militants were attacking the army’s positions in the village.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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