ARSAL, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army is gearing up to finish the battle against militants in the northeastern town of Arsal in the next 48 hours after two days of fierce clashes killed 11 soldiers and 40 gunmen, security sources said Sunday.
“The Army has decided to finish the battle [in Arsal] within the next 48 hours,” a security source told The Daily Star.
The source said Hezbollah, which is trying along with the Syrian army to root out Syrian rebels from the Qalamoun region near the border, has decided not to intervene in the Arsal fighting in order “to prevent matters taking a [sectarian] turn.”
At least 11 Lebanese soldiers were killed and 15 taken hostage in the weekend battles between the Army and Islamist militants in and around Arsal, in the most serious spillover of violence from the war in Syria.
The fighting in Arsal, located near the border with Syria, in which at least 40 militants, mostly from Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, were also killed, heightened fears Lebanon could be dragged further into the Syrian war with all the dire consequences this entailed on the country’s fragile security and stability.
The government confirmed that the Army’s campaign against militants in Arsal would continue.
As the fighting raged on at midnight Sunday, the Army recovered some of its posts on Arsal’s outskirts captured by militants.
“Army units continue their military operations in Arsal and its surroundings, where they were able to expel the gunmen from the Arsal vocational building who tried to take it over,” the Army said in a statement.
In response to calls by the Tripoli-based Muslim Ulema Committee for an immediate halt to the fighting in Arsal, the Army Command demanded that all missing soldiers be handed over first before agreeing to any truce.
The fighting led thousands of Arsal’s residents to flee to safer areas.
Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi said the Army would continue fighting terrorism and takfiri groups.
“What happened today is far more dangerous than what some people believe,” he said. “The terrorist attack was not an attack by chance or coincidence. It was planned long ago, waiting for the appropriate time.”
Speaking at a rare news conference at the Defense Ministry in Yarze, Kahwagi confirmed that 10 soldiers were killed, 25 others, including four officers, were wounded and 13 were missing, saying that they were most likely taken prisoner by the militants. Shortly after he spoke, a Lebanese sergeant, Yehia Dirani, died in clashes near Arsal’s technical institute, bringing the death toll to 11.
Later, security sources said 30 soldiers were wounded and 15 missing.
In addition to the 15 missing soldiers, there are 16 members of the Internal Security Forces who were captured by Syrian rebels and are currently held at the house of Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri in Arsal.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam chaired an extraordinary security meeting at the Grand Serail Sunday to cope with the dramatic security developments in Arsal.
“Chiefs of security institutions and apparatuses reviewed the latest information relating to the attack on Lebanese sovereignty in the town of Arsal and its environs and the efforts made by the Army and security forces to confront the design which terrorist gunmen have begun implementing in the region,” Defense Minister Samir Moqbel said after the meeting.In response to a question, he said: “The military operation in Arsal will continue.” He denied reports that Hezbollah was helping the Army in its battle against militants. “The Army is the only [force] in Arsal fighting terrorists. No compromise at the Army’s expense.” Moqbel said security chiefs pointed out that Arsal’s residents supported the Army and security forces.
The Cabinet will hold a special session Monday to follow up on the situation in Arsal.
In an apparent sequel to the Arsal fighting, tensions ran high in the northern city of Tripoli after militants attacked several Army posts there overnight Saturday, wounding two soldiers, security sources told The Daily Star.
Gunmen affiliated with militia leaders Chadi al-Mawlawi, his brother Nizar Mawlawi and Osama Mansour, known as Abu Mansour, attacked Army posts in the impoverished neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades in retaliation for the Army’s operation against militants in Arsal, the sources said. They added that the Army took measures to beef up its positions and checkpoints in Tripoli to forestall any attack.
The fighting in Arsal began Saturday after troops detained Imad Ahmad Jomaa, a prominent Syrian rebel commander. Shortly afterward, bearded gunmen attacked several military posts and checkpoints in Arsal and seized the local police station, taking 16 ISF members captive. They demanded that Jomaa be released. Two residents in Arsal were killed, reportedly as they tried to hold back the militants.
Moqbel said Jomaa belonged to Nusra Front. However, Nusra Front denied via Twitter that Jomaa was part of the group. It also denied that its gunmen were involved in the Arsal clashes.
Kahwagi vowed the Army would continue its military operations to fight terrorism, denying reports that the fighting was triggered by Jomaa’s arrest.
“What happened was very dangerous. The arrested man had confessed that he was planning a massive operation against the Army,” he said.
Kahwagi vowed to foil attempts to transport Syria’s war to Lebanon. “The Army will not allow what happened on the Iraqi-Syrian border to spread to Lebanon,” he said, referring to the control by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) of wide swaths of territory across Iraqi-Syrian border.
But he warned that “Lebanon’s geography will not be far from this threat.”
The Arsal fighting evoked nationwide support from the country’s rival political leaders for the Army as well as from the United States, which urged respect for Lebanon’s policy of disassociation from the conflict in Syria.
Hezbollah praised the military’s determination to confront “criminal attacks by terrorist groups” on Lebanon’s people and Army, and voiced solidarity with the military institution.
“Hezbollah stands united with this institution [Army] in confronting the dangers facing our country which threaten its unity, sovereignty and stability,” the party said in a statement.
U.S. Ambassador David Hale met with Kahwagi, expressing his country’s support for the Army’s fight against terrorism.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut issued a statement saying Hale expressed American solidarity with the Lebanese Army and encouraged all parties to work to insulate Lebanon from regional conflicts.
The U.S. State Department also issued a statement condemning the attack on the Lebanese Army.
“We urge all parties in Lebanon to respect the Lebanese government’s policy of dissociation from regional conflicts, as stated in the Baabda Declaration,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said in the statement.
“The United States is committed to Lebanon’s security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. We will continue our strong support for Lebanon’s state institutions, including the LAF and the ISF.”