BEIRUT: Lebanese politicians expressed solidarity with the Lebanese Army Wednesday, calling for local and international support for the military as it battles to secure the border town of Arsal.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam released a statement Wednesday condemning the loss of Lebanese lives during clashes in Arsal and lauding local and regional efforts to stand by Lebanon during a critical phase.
Salam made reassurances that “ Lebanon is not alone ... in its struggle against terrorist attacks that have taken valuable Lebanese blood and kept a dear area hostage and in the hands of militants.”
The premier said fighting terrorism, which he noted was not tolerated by Islam, was simultaneously a means to support religious coexistence and commit to moderation.
Salam lauded former Prime Minister Saad Hariri for his “brave national stand” since the crisis started, hailing his attempts to achieve national consensus during the critical phase.
Salam, on behalf of the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people, thanked Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for his generous donation of $1 billion to the Lebanese Army earlier Wednesday.
“We consider this generous donation ... further evidence of the king’s full support of the Lebanese state and his desire to strengthen its institutions,” the statement said.
Clashes between the Army and the armed groups in Arsal entered their fifth day Wednesday, with the death toll rising to 17 soldiers, 12 civilians and more than 50 militants.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said the clashes provide evidence that refugee camps could serve as a hotbeds for terrorists, adding weight to the government’s no-camp policy inside Lebanon.
“It has been revealed, and this is something we have been warning, that refugee camps could serve as hospitable environments for terrorists,” Bassil said at a news conference held at the Foreign Ministry.
“A place filled with despair, poverty and neediness, [aided] by financial support and nourished with religious extremism, could be used to create a safe haven for terrorists and this is what happened in Arsal,” he said.
Bassil said requests to set up formal camps for refugees inside Lebanon were unacceptable.
The foreign minister also called on donors to provide aid to the Lebanese Army, saying that escalating tensions in Arsal required a quick response.
In a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale, Bassil called for legal action to be taken against the militants, sayingthey had committed crimes against humanity.
The foreign minister thanked Hale for “any emergency help the U.S could offer to support the Lebanese Army,” and said that military aid had been the topic of his and Hale’s phone discussion last Sunday.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk also met with U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale Wednesday and the two discussed the developments in Arsal and the pressing need to support the Army.
The interior minister expressed the importance of maintaining coordination between the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the Internal Security Forces, saying it reinforced the role of the ISF.
Following his meeting with Hale, Machnouk met with U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Ross Mountain.
The interior minister said coordination between all relevant parties was crucial to “protect civilians and provide a safe passage for the wounded Lebanese civilians in Arsal,” and called for “cooperation between the Army, the U.N. and the Red Cross in delivering humanitarian aid to the residents of Arsal.”
In a later statement, Machnouk said that the government refused to cooperate with the Syrian army in battles with insurgents in Arsal, arguing that such cooperation was only being sought by the Syrian regime.
During a Parliament session held Wednesday, Speaker Nabih Berri said that “investment in security is a priority during this phase.”
“[So] is national unity,” he added, calling it “the golden word given current circumstances.”
A spokesperson for EU High Representative Catherine Ashton issued a statement condemning the killing, the wounding and abduction of a high number of Lebanese officers Wednesday, expressing his condolences to the families of the victims.
“We strongly condemn the assault by violent extremist groups on the Lebanese Armed Forces in the area of Arsal in eastern Lebanon” the statement said.
The statement called for the immediate release of those abducted, declaring full support for the Army in defending their country and people.
The statement lauded Lebanese political leaders for their determination to put an end to terrorism and violent extremism and cited deep concern over the severe security, political, economic and social challenges Lebanon is facing as a result of the conflict in Syria.
The EU high representative’s spokesperson expressed Europe’s commitment to Lebanon’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence, saying that it would continue to provide assistance to Lebanon, “both in our bilateral relations and in response to the Syrian crisis.”
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi issued a statement Wednesday, condemning “fabrications” published on social media claiming to depict the abuse and torture of Lebanese soldiers at the hands of Syrian militants in Raqqa.
Social media platforms have been circulating a photo, the caption claiming it showed the bodies of Army soldiers killed in the Syrian region of Raqqa Tuesday.
Following the release of the image, allegations were leveled that the 13 bodies belonged to soldiers captured by armed militants in Arsal.
It was announced Tuesday that the photo was a fabrication and the individuals were not members of the Lebanese Army.
Accordingly, Rifi called on the public prosecutor to follow up and investigate those responsible for the fabrication and dissemination of the image.
The justice minister added that investigations would serve as a prelude to legal measures and harsh penalties, as the “issue affects national security, and undermines the prestige of the military and security institutions during a stage that requires utmost awareness.”