LABWEH/BEIRUT: At least 3,000 families from Arsal have been displaced so far in clashes between Islamist militants and the Lebanese Army which began Saturday, the mayor of Labweh, Ramez Amhaz estimated.
Cars and trucks packed with families left the village Monday morning as battles raged.
The Daily Star spoke to one Lebanese family, who asked not to be named, as they were fleeing the town. "The militants were letting the civilians out this morning, and we left with the wave of people. There was firing by our house last night," said the father.
Arsal resident Merhi Fliti, who Sunday said he was adamant on staying, explained that he he had left the town at 6:30 a.m Monday morning with a heavy heart.
“It’s very dangerous and they [both the Army and militants] are not paying attention to the safety of civilians,” he said.
Others, such as Tareq Hujeiri chose to remain despite the threat of more violence.
“I am currently in Arsal with my family and I plan on staying in my home because I have nowhere else to go,” he said, adding that he was in a “safe place” because the “Army has taken care of sensitive areas.”
“But, many militants are still in the northern part of Arsal,” he said.
Mahmoud Ezzedine, a Lebanese resident of Arsal who manages several Syrian refugee camps in the outskirts of Arsal with the NGO Shebab al Umma, described the situation as “alarming.”
“Everyone inside the camps and in the outskirts of Arsal is under threat,” he said. “Everyone is worried about what’s going to happen next.”
“Syrians are not allowed to leave [Arsal], but the Lebanese are evacuating,” he claimed.
According to security sources, the gunmen were taking shelter in the camps prior to launching attacks. “Most of them came from deep in the outskirts,” he said, doubting any were taking refuge in his camp.
Amhaz said militants had entered Arsal when they heard that the Army would be conducting a joint operation with Hezbollah to rid the town of gunmen.
Hezbollah, however, has said it is keeping out of the clashes to prevent sectarian tensions.
Amhaz said that Hezbollah was "maybe" helping with the battle logistics, but that its fighters were not participating in the battles.
Dr. Bassem al-Faris, a Syrian doctor who manages a hospital in Arsal, described the frantic scene. "Since 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, we have seen more than 90 injuries. About 30 of them are Lebanese," he said, his voice quivering over the phone. "Almost all the cases were civilians," he added.
Earlier, a bomb fell just 300 meters from the hospital. The hospital's electricity was cut, the doctor said, and staff are now relying on generators.
"We are short on many of our supplies... There is blood covering all the surfaces here," he said of the increasingly dire situation in the hospital.
Dr. Kassem al-Zein, who runs a field hospital in the town echoed Faris’ concerns, saying his facility was running out of water and electricity. By Monday afternoon, he had seen 60 patients. Six of his patients had died in intensive care, three of them were Lebanese children who were in a car that came under fire. A Syrian woman accompanying them was also seriously wounded, he said.
“No one can provide us with water but we have a small generator that will help us through the night and until tomorrow morning,” he said.
At a makeshift Red Cross center in Labweh’s municipality building, several wounded soldiers were being treated. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to divulge details about the wounded, a paramedic said that at least one soldier had his eyes gouged out by militants.
According to health workers, many injured during the clashes were Syrian refugees. UNHCR representative in Lebanon, Ninette Kelly traveled to the Bekaa Valley today, accompanied by the head of the Social Affairs Ministry Refugee Unit Makram Malaeb to review the humanitarian situation, according to a statement from the agency.
The town currently hosts 40,000 registered refugees.
“The UNHCR working with MOSA is reviewing contingency plans and a meeting between partners is scheduled for tomorrow to determine what additional supplies should be mobilized for civilians in need, including food, water and medicines,” the statement said. – with additional reporting by Elise Knutsen