ARSAL, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army Monday regained control of a strategic hill overlooking the northeastern town of Arsal, where three-day clashes between the military and militants from Syria have killed 14 soldiers.
Soldiers succeeded in overrunning the Ras al-Sarj hill, giving the military an upper hand in the fierce battle, a security source told The Daily Star. Control over the elevated land will allow the Army to monitor movements of militants on the ground and strike their gathering spots with better precision.
The Army also succeeded in pushing the militants to the outskirts of the town in Wadi Hamayyed near the border with Syria, the source, speaking on condition of anonymity said.
Around 6 p.m., Syrian jets fired 10 rockets on the outskirts of Arsal, where militants are said to be hiding, a security source said.
In the evening, Syrian military planes bombed a convoy of militants that was en route to Arsal causing "innumerable casualties, a security sorce said.
In the worst Syria-linked violence in Lebanon, the Army said the clashes with “Takfiri, terrorist groups” killed 14 soldiers and wounded 86 others, while 22 were still missing.
At least 12 civilians have died as a result of the fighting, including five, while 50 militants were killed, the source said, adding that the military arrested three in a raid Sunday that freed two wounded soldiers.
The Army said it deployed reinforcements and strengthened its posts in the town with dozens of Armored Personnel Carriers seen entering Arsal, where thousands of militants poured in Saturday afternoon.
Troops pounded militant hideouts as soldiers launched separate operations to retake Army posts that armed groups occupied over the weekend.
Earlier in the day, the Army said militants of different nationalities attacked Arsal residents, while a security source said gunmen prevented dozens of families from fleeing the violence.
“The terrorist groups are attacking the people of Arsal, preventing them from leaving the town,” the statement said, mentioning that “a number of citizens who refused to adhere to the groups” were “eliminated yesterday.”
Militants from Syria executed a Lebanese man in Arsal after he asked them to stop firing in the direction of a gas station his father owned in the area, a security source said.
The man, identified by his last name as Al-Sultan, was executed near the gas station on Al-Jammal road for making the request.
Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees were able to flee the village in packed cars and pickup trucks Monday morning, with the Army securing the evacuation of 50 Arsali families and Syrian refugees to the nearby village of Labweh.
The source said that the gunmen are stationed in two main positions in Arsal: the infirmary and a mosque. The militants are attempting to counter-attack from the hills overlooking the village, but have been unsuccessful so far.
The Army, which fought back against fierce clashes overnight Sunday, is planning to establish a defensive line to protect the eastern town from attacks from Syrian territory, a security source told The Daily Star earlier Monday.
The source said the line would be established with a width of 50 km and a depth of 15 km, to protect the town from attacks and weapons smuggling from the Syrian side of the border.
The Army was shelling bases in militant-controlled Al-Hosn neighborhood, the source added, and planned to settle in the area after pushing the gunmen out. Once that was accomplished, the Army would have secured all the entrances to Arsal, preventing the smuggling of militants or weapons into the town.
Insulating Arsal from Syrian territory is a priority for the Army, according to the source, because of the existence of extremist Syrian militants in the hills.
Militants attacked an Army base next to the technical institute Sunday, killing the unit’s commander, his assistant and two soldiers. The attack also led to the wounding of 25 soldiers, the most casualties in a single incident during the 48-hour-battle’s clashes.
The source explained that the Army was willing to go beyond Arsal in its military campaign and attack the militants’ lines on the town’s periphery.
Despite efforts by Muslim scholars to negotiate a cease-fire with the Army, Prime Minister Tammam Salam said the government would not accept a political solution to end the battle in Arsal, demanding the withdrawal of militants from Lebanon and the release of kidnapped soldiers and security personnel.
Salam also said that the country was facing a systematic attack by murky groups aiming to jeopardize the state and its institutions. His remarks came after he chaired an exceptional Cabinet meeting to address developments in Arsal.
Initially it was believed that the clashes and the kidnapping of 31 Lebanese security forces - 15 Army and 16 ISF according to security sources - was sparked by the detainment of Imad Ahmad Jomaa, a prominent Syrian rebel commander. However, speaking at a rare news conference Sunday, chief of the Lebanese Army, Gen. Jean Kahwagi said the attack was premeditated.
“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.”
The Army said Saturday that Jomaa confessed to belonging to Nusra Front.