ARSAL, Lebanon: At least 11 Lebanese Army soldiers were killed and 13 were taken hostage in Arsal, during clashes between the Army and Syrian armed groups that have so far killed 30 militants, according to security sources.
As clashes between troops and militants raged to regain control of an Army barrack inside the border town, a brigade from the Army's elite force, the Maghawir, arrived in Arsal to support colleagues fighting there.
Army chief, Gen. Jean Kahwagi, confirmed in a news conference that 10 soldiers had died and 13 were missing, saying they were most likely kidnapped. Shortly after the army commander spoke a Lebanese sergeant, Yehia Dirani, died in clashes near Arsal's technical institute, bringing the death toll to 11.
The 13 missing Army soldiers increase the toll of missing personal, with 16 members of the Internal Security Forces kidnapped earlier, reported to be "hosted" at Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri's house in Arsal, according the Sheikh's own claims.
Security sources told The Daily Star that the Army is preparing to send reinforcements to gain the advantage in the clashes, while residents discuss possible methods to organize and aid the army.
Media reports said a military base belonging to the Army, located on a hill overseeing both Labweh and Arsal villages, was directly attacked by militants, and TV channels showed black smoke allegedly erupting from the base, indicating clear damage in the building.
However, Kahwagi said that Army troops were able to take back control of Wadi Hmayyed, a neighborhood on the entrance of Arsal that has witnessed heavy, non-stop clashes.
Kahwagi stressed in his speech that the terrorist attacks did not come in reaction to the arrest of Imad Jomaa, instead they were premeditated, and implemented within the last 48 hours.
The attacks against the Army confirm that the terrorist threat against Lebanon has become reality, with the Army firmly vowing to carry on with its mission in north east Lebanon until the threat is eradicated.
"The Army continued its military operations throughout the night and this morning in Arsal and its environs, as it pursued armed groups and clashed with them," the statement 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.
Four wounded troops were sent Sunday to a hospital in Hermel, according to The Daily Star’s correspondent in the town. LBCI TV reported the death of another soldier who succumbed to his wounds, while other media reports said the Army casualties had reached 15.
Due to the escalation of the situation, a top security meeting was scheduled for Sunday afternoon, and will be headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam in the Grand Serail, with an exceptional Cabinet meeting scheduled for Monday at noon.
Media reports said the Army was able to free two of the wounded soldiers, after raiding the house in which they were apprehended by armed groups. The reports mentioned that the Army unit also arrested many gunmen, whose alleged photos were shown by Al-Jadeed TV’s anchor.
According to The Daily Star correspondent in Arsal, Army artillery are shelling militants’ locations from distance, not going inside the town. The shelling is sometimes falling between residences, which has prompted the civilians’ concerns over their own safety.
Media reports said Arsal residents are attempting fleeing the town, but very few families were able to leave so far. The reports said that some residents of the town were fighting alongside the Army, others alongside the Nusra Front. Talking to a TV station, a resident reportedly described the situation as a battlefield inside the town.
Arsal’s deputy Mayor told The Daily Star that the Army should change tactics and invade the militants’ locations, rather than bombing them from distance.
“The Army is asked to enter Arsal and clean it of the militants,” he said. “Already four civilians have fallen trying to support the Army, whose responsibility is to protect Arsal’s residents.”
Security sources said that most of the gunmen attacking the Army came from refugee camps inside Arsal and its outskirts.
The Future Movement’s Arsal official told The Daily Star that militants are patrolling the town, stressing that “the situation is now beyond the people of Arsal’s will.” He also said that campaigns were being carried against his party by the extremist groups inside the town.
Crippled by checkpoints set up by armed groups, coupled with shelling from Arsal’s entrance toward the militant’s bases, Arsal witnessed no market activities today, as residents are avoiding any dispensable movements.
Syrian armed groups Saturday had killed two Lebanese soldiers in an attack on a checkpoint in Wadi Hmayyed, northeast Lebanon, as the Lebanese Army freed two troops kidnapped earlier in the area.
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.
The Nusra Front's YouTube channel posted a video allegedly showing members of the Internal Security Forces announcing their defection "from the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah."
The clashes in Arsal also sparked tensions in the northern city of Tripoli, where gunmen attacked Army posts and Army vehicles in the city, wounding two soldiers.
The Army had released a statement Saturday, accusing the armed groups launching the attacks of implementing a plan against Lebanon.
"What happened today is the most dangerous incident Lebanon and the Lebanese have ever faced, because it's made clear that there is someone planning and preparing to attack Lebanon as well as planning to sabotage the Lebanese Army and the residents of Arsal," the statement said.