HERMEL, Lebanon: Militants have killed two Lebanese soldiers in an attack on a checkpoint in Wadi Hmayyed in northeast Lebanon Saturday, according to a security source, as the Lebanese Army freed two troops kidnapped earlier in the area.
The military also pounded hideouts of militants in the mountainous outskirts of the Bekaa Valley village of Arsal, with an Army source saying the operation against the gunmen will continue until armed presence in the village is eradicated.
An unnamed Lebanese security official told Reuters late on Saturday that eleven militants killed in fighting with Lebanese Army near Syrian border.
Militants are holding at least seven members of the Internal Security Forces some of whom were taken from the police station that armed men stormed earlier in the day, a security source said.
Also on Saturday evening, several shells struck Arsal from the neighboring Bekaa town of Labweh, the source said.
The Army vowed in a statement to confront what it said was a systematic plan to target Lebanon and its military, saying it would prevent anyone from moving Syria's battle into the country.
The source said that two Army soldiers were killed when the militants attacked the checkpoint on the outskirts of the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal, while another soldier was wounded in Arsal. An Army helicopter transported the wounded soldier, identified as Lt. Jad Nakhle, from Arsal to the Baalbek hospital, the source said.
Tensions have risen dramatically in the Bekaa Valley after an Army arrest of a Syrian militant sparked a standoff Saturday afternoon in Arsal, with armed men laying siege to government facilities in the border town, demanding the release of the captive.
The military said the militants were of different nationalities and commended residents of Arsal for assisting the Army in the clashes.
"The Army will not allow anyone to move the battle in Syria into Lebanon," it said in its statement.
After several hours of intermittent gunfire and a tense standoff, militants stormed the police station in Arsal, taking control of the building and releasing several Syrian detainees held there, a security source told The Daily Star. The source said two civilians were killed while trying to prevent the militants from attacking the station.
Earlier, the militants intercepted a military vehicle and kidnapped the two soldiers in Arsal, the source said.
The crisis in the Bekaa Valley was set off after the Army arrested Syrian Imad Ahmad Jomaa.
In an earlier statement, the Army said it arrested Jomaa at noon in Arsal and that he confessed to belonging to the Nusra Front. He was then referred to concerned parties for further investigation. The National News Agency said the Army detained Jomaa while he was on his way to a hospital after sustaining wounds during battles in Qalamoun.
The arrest angered armed Syrians in Arsal, who the source said were living among refugees in the northeastern town, known for its support for the Syrian opposition.
Dozens of armed, masked men gathered at several checkpoints and an Army center in Arsal, demanding the release of the Nusra commander. The standoff and the subsequent abduction of soldiers prompted the Army to dispatch two military helicopters as well as ground troops in armored personnel carriers.
Media reports said that Syrian jets had launched airstrikes on the outskirts of Arsal.
The state-run agency said local figures in Arsal had asked residents to remain neutral in the conflict, refrain from standing in confrontation with the Army and expel armed men.
Arsal hosts over 100,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to the town given its proximity to Qalamoun, the mountainous region bordering Lebanon.
The town has been under fire for sheltering radical groups but local figures have repeatedly attempted to diffuse tensions linked to the crisis in neighboring Syria.
The Lebanese Army has launched a security plan in the border region, setting up centers and checkpoints to curb the infiltration of armed groups into Lebanon. The crackdown was the result of a series of car bombings claimed by Syrian opposition groups the likes of Nusra Front.
Syrian rebels have found themselves caught between the Army crackdown along the porous border with Syria and Hezbollah-backed Syrian troops clearing out their last hideouts in the Qalamoun region.
Earlier Saturday, dozens of rebels were killed in fierce clashes with Hezbollah and Syrian regime forces in Qalamoun, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Security sources told The Daily Star that two Hezbollah fighters and 20 Syrian troops were also killed in the overnight fighting.