ARSAL/BEIRUT: Gripped with the fear that violence might soon consume their town, numerous Arsal residents have fled to neighboring areas, while others have opted to stay and protect their properties. Streams of cars were seen leaving the town Sunday afternoon, carrying families fearful that the clashes would escalate.
Residents in and around areas where the violence was especially severe moved to safer areas inside Arsal, while others left the town entirely to take shelter in Baalbek and the nearby towns of Ras Baalbek and Fakiha.
Civilian Mohammad Qassem Fliti died after he was shot in the head by militant gunfire on the rooftop of his home, a security source told The Daily Star.
Two Syrian infants also died and 23 Syrian refugees were wounded as a result of the ongoing clashes, the source added.
The wounded refugees were treated at Dr. Kassem al-Zein’s field hospital. When The Daily Star interviewed Zein early Sunday evening, he was tending to some 52 wounded patients.
Most, he said, were Syrian refugees who had suffered from severe lacerations as a result of bombing. About 30 required immediate surgery.
“The bombardment is ongoing but our medical supplies are running short, which is the usual case but is exacerbated during a crisis,” he said.
Those who could not flee cited the lack of a safe passage and overriding concern to maintain their only assets, namely property, as reasons.
“Whoever is able to flee is not hesitating, but we cannot because the clashes are taking place just down the street,” Mohammad Hujeiri, a Lebanese resident of Arsal told The Daily Star over the phone, describing the sounds of artillery fire ricocheting across his neighborhood.
“There are fierce battles ongoing and most people are staying home,” said Merhi Fliti, another Arsal resident, describing the atmosphere inside the town.
The risk of spillover from the Syrian crisis has loomed over Arsal for the past few months, especially after the fall of Yabroud in March, when thousands of rebel fighters reportedly escaped and went into hiding in the town’s rugged outskirts.
Tareq Hujieri’s family experienced firsthand the outcome of spillover on Jan. 14 when his wife Israa was injured after their house was struck by a Syrian regime missile. The family chose to stay put despite the possibility of militant advances.
“The situation is very bad and the crisis has nothing to do with Arsal or its people,” he said.
Despite hearing the news that residents were evacuating en masse, he said those he knew were adamant about staying. “We can’t leave our homes,” he said.
The situation on the ground appeared to be deteriorating rapidly, he said, estimating that over 60 bombs had hit residential areas.
Gunmen were roaming the streets, he said, “but we haven’t spotted the Army inside the town since yesterday.”
Claims made by Fliti that blocked roads in Labweh had impeded Arsalis from leaving the town were categorically denied by Labweh’s mayor Ramez Amhaz, who said: “The road from Arsal is fully open and numerous cars have been bringing families to Labweh.
“We don’t consider them immigrants; they should think of Labweh as their home and we will host them with open hearts,” he said. “We know if they weren’t obliged to, they wouldn’t have fled their own town.”
A senior Army Intelligence officer based in the Bekaa Valley, who requested anonymity because he didn’t have authorization to speak to the press, also confirmed that roads were open to Arsal residents fleeing violence.
Stressing that many residents fleeing Arsal had relatives in Labweh, Amhaz said he was not concerned about the possibility of clashes reaching his municipality.
Arsal is home to 40,000 Lebanese residents and over 40,000 Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. Municipal estimates, however, put the number of Syrians in the town to about 100,000. The Islamist militants were believed to have been hiding out inside camps, putting refugees at risk of assault.
“We continue to be in close contact with the civilian authorities of Arsal as well as our counterparts in the Lebanese Social Affairs Ministry, along with our sister U.N. and other partner agencies,” said Brian Hansford, a spokesperson for the UNHCR.
“Contingency plans are in place and supplies have been stockpiled while we continue to assess this very fast-moving situation,” he added.
By Sunday evening, the fighting appeared to be restricted to five main border crossings, with the most intense clashes taking place in the Wadi Hmeid checkpoint.
An Army checkpoint along a valley in Shoob, a neighborhood by the entrance to Arsal, has also been the target of sniper fire by militants, who are deployed on the hills surrounding the checkpoint. – Additional reporting by Hachem Osseiran and Nizar Hassan