LABWEH, Lebanon: The man pointed to an Army barracks just a couple of kilometers from his house that had been taken over by militants the day before, as artillery fire echoed from the mountain.
“If you have faith in God, then nothing else matters,” he said, when asked if he feared being so close to the battle raging over the hill.
The Lebanese Army tightened the noose on militants linked to the Nusra Front and other rebel groups in the embattled town of Arsal, as over 3,000 families fled the town in search of a refuge from the fighting, during a three-hour truce Monday morning.
“I don’t know where they came from,” said Hala, a Lebanese refugee who fled Arsal Thursday morning with her husband and two young children, as their car idled on the road leading away from Arsal and toward the nearest town of Labweh. “They suddenly emerged and surrounded the town.”
As she held her daughter, she said rockets had landed close to their house as the fighting raged the night before. Nobody had dared leave their home with militants in the streets. “They were shooting at cars, nobody dared go out of their houses,” she said. “May God not forgive them.”
In the morning, the family drove down to an intersection, where gunmen with covered faces ushered them out with the other displaced families.
“We don’t know where they are from, nobody dared speak to them,” she said. “Whoever talks to them gets shot at.”
Her husband, Khaled, said the fighting had died down that morning as the families departed the besieged town. All they could hear was sporadic gunfire.
Artillery shells sounded throughout the day, bombing unseen militant targets. The Lebanese Army sealed off the only road from Labweh into Arsal, barring journalists from even approaching the last two checkpoints before Arsal. By early afternoon military vehicles lined the road along with the Civil Defense and the Lebanese Red Cross, as well as soldiers and other fighters.
Some of the artillery fire came from Labweh, where the Army set up firing ranges. Other shots appeared to emerge from the mountains, likely targeting militants trying to enter or leave Arsal. The boom of the shells erupted throughout the day sporadically.
In the distance, columns of smoke rose from an area immediately next to a mosque inside Arsal and overlooking a refugee settlement in the area. The mosque was located near an Army barracks and gas station.
A soldier stationed near Arsal told The Daily Star that the attack targeted militants who were filling the gas tanks of captured military vehicles, setting them on fire.
Hundreds of Lebanese soldiers streamed toward Arsal during the day, reinforcements for what residents said may be a decisive assault on the town to retake it from militants.
Ramez Amhaz, the mayor of Labweh, a town close to Hezbollah, said he expected the Army to enter Arsal and resolve the crisis. He said there is full backing for a decisive resolution.
“What truce? Are we going to kid each other?” he asked, adding that nearly 30 Lebanese soldiers had been kidnapped by militants he described as belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda splinter group with a presence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
But Amhaz conceded that a possible solution to the crisis may involve allowing the militants to leave Arsal and pursuing them later.
“If they stay among the families, the families and the state will pay a price,” he said. “It is better for us if they get out than for Arsal’s people to be harmed.”
Amhaz said that Hezbollah was not actively participating in the fighting, although rumors suggested that the party had a role to play in shelling militants who attempted to use mountain roads to enter or leave the town.
“The state is fighting,” Amhaz said. “ Hezbollah is a support.”
He said the party is providing logistical and other aid to the Army.
“But Hezbollah is not taking part in the battle,” he added. “There are no martyrs from Hezbollah.”
Amhaz said the militants attacked Arsal after reports emerged of an imminent offensive involving the Lebanese military and Hezbollah to strike at rebels hiding in the mountainous regions surrounding Arsal, who fled there after the Syrian regime, backed by fighters from Hezbollah, evicted the rebels from border villages in the Qalamoun region.
“They took people as human shields to defend themselves,” he said.
But Amhaz told The Daily Star that the gunmen who leave Arsal will eventually be pursued. He also said they allowed civilians to leave the area as a result of demands by Arsal’s residents.
Amhaz also revealed that militants from the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, had smuggled out 21 ISF officers kidnapped by the group from Arsal to an unknown location.
Amhaz also said that the Army had set up four artillery positions in Labweh.
But by nightfall it was clear that Hezbollah had entered the fight. As darkness descended on Labweh, rockets streamed toward Arsal, pinpoints of yellow and red light crashing into targets beyond the mountain peaks, as the Army’s artillery echoed through the night. Journalists huddled on rooftops filmed the surreal scene from their vantage point, the boom of the rockets on impact arriving seconds after the flash.
In addition to the Army, the Lebanese Red Cross also set up a makeshift headquarters in the town’s municipality.
A Red Cross official told The Daily Star that 10 teams comprising 50 paramedics were present to treat the wounded from the Army, while all Red Cross stations in the Bekaa Valley, Mount Lebanon and Beirut were on alert.
So far, all the wounded and dead handled by the Lebanese Red Cross were from the Army. The organization has not had access to any wounded civilians.
“We cannot go based on our safety policies and procedures,” the official said. “We are waiting until they evacuate them or tell us we can come and retrieve the wounded.”
The official declined to elaborate on the nature of the wounds sustained by the soldiers. But a local paramedic said they had sustained sniper wounds and some had been defaced – he said one of the soldiers who arrived for treatment appeared to have his eyes gouged by a militant.