ARSAL, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army pressed ahead Monday with its campaign against Islamist militants entrenched in Arsal, regaining control of a barracks and a strategic hill overlooking the northeastern town, in a third day of ferocious fighting that threatened to further drag Lebanon into the fire next door.
Showing solidarity with the Army’s battle against militants, many of whom belong to Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, Cabinet threw its weight fully behind the military, saying there would be no political deal with “terrorist groups that violated national sovereignty and attacked the Army and security forces.”
“We assert that there will be no leniency with the terrorist killers and no conciliation with those who have violated Lebanon’s territory and harmed its people,” Prime Minister Tammam Salam told reporters after chairing a special Cabinet meeting to cope with the dramatic security developments in Arsal, where fierce clashes between the military and militants have killed 14 soldiers since Saturday.
“There are no political solutions with takfiris who are tampering with Arab societies under oppressive, alien religious slogans and they want to transport their sick practices to Lebanon,” said Salam, flanked by members of his Cabinet at the Grand Serail.
He added that the only solution was for the militants to withdraw from Arsal and its environs and release all Lebanese military and security personnel believed held captive by them.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the attack on the Lebanese Army in Arsal. The council issued a statement affirming its support for the Lebanese security forces’ fight against terrorism in Arsal and foiling attempts to undermine stability in Lebanon. Meanwhile, a delegation from the Committee of Muslim Scholars was fired upon and some of its members were wounded, according to media reports.
The delegation had arrived in Arsal late Monday night amid tight security measures in an attempt to arrange a cease-fire between the Army and the militants and discuss the release of 38 military and security personnel held captive by the gunmen.
In an operation dubbed the “Brandished Sword,” Lebanese troops, backed by tanks, armored personnel carriers and 122mm cannons, succeeded in overrunning the Ras al-Sarj hill, giving the military the 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.
Troops pounded militant hideouts as soldiers launched separate operations to retake Army posts captured by the gunmen over the weekend.
The Army succeeded in pushing the militants to the outskirts of Arsal in Wadi Hamayyed near the border with Syria, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Troops also fought fierce clashes with militants, regaining a military barracks captured by the gunmen Sunday, security sources said. Barracks 83 is located on a hill overlooking Arsal and is near the town’s vocational institute.
Several gunmen were killed in the clashes, while others were taken captive by the Army, the sources said.
The Army said in a statement Monday that soldiers at a base near Arsal’s Vocational School repulsed an attack by a large number of terrorist gunmen Sunday night.
“Following fierce clashes in which various kinds of weapons were used, the base’s members killed and wounded scores of terrorist attackers, while the rest fled,” the statement said.
The Army released a video showing it had regained total control of one of its headquarters in Arsal after it was briefly seized by the militants. The footage showed the bodies of six fighters killed during the battles. Over 20 other men could be seen handcuffed and sitting on the floor, with their heads turned toward the wall.
Around 6 p.m., Syrian jets fired 10 rockets on Arsal’s outskirts, where militants are said to be hiding, a security source 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, believed to be held captive by the militants.
At least 12 civilians have died as a result of the fighting, while 50 militants were killed, the source said, adding that the military arrested three in a raid Sunday that freed two wounded soldiers.
“Army units are currently tracking the armed groups that are still targeting soldiers and unarmed civilians in the town of Arsal,” the Army said in a statement.
The Army added that it deployed reinforcements and strengthened its posts in the town with dozens of APCs seen entering Arsal, where thousands of militants poured last Saturday.
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 town 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 is planning to establish a defensive line to protect the eastern town from attacks from Syrian territory, a security source told The Daily Star.
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.
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.