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Arsal braces for more refugees as Yabroud heats up

HERMEL, Lebanon: The heavy artillery fire and intensified air raids just on the other side of Lebanon’s northeastern borders have been resonating in the country’s border villages, where residents of border towns such as Arsal are preparing for a new influx of refugees.

The regime’s violent bombardment of Yabroud and the surrounding Qalamoun region aimed at obliterating rebel resistance has been accompanied by government officials issuing warnings through megaphones to residents of villages nearby to leave their homes if they want to stay safe.

“We heard through loud speakers in the village’s mosque [the voice of] someone who introduced himself as an officer in the regime forces,” said Abu Ali al-Zhouri, a 70-year-old from the Syrian town of Al-Sahel, just 6 kilometers from Yabroud.

“He asked the residents to leave within the next few hours because the army was going to bombard the bastions of the Syrian opposition fighters; he asked the residents to leave as soon as possible if they wanted to stay alive,” Zhouri added.

Zhouri reached Arsal Sunday after traveling through the rugged mountainous routes along with seven relatives. Those that come to Lebanon journey through two Syrian villages that face Arsal, Jraijir and Flita, a route that hundreds of Qalamoun residents have taken over the past months to flee fighting in the area.

Residents in villages who received warnings quickly gathered their belongings and headed to Arsal, Zhouri said.

“That’s what we did with many other families,” Zhouri said. “We gathered what we could and left for Arsal. There the residents welcomed us but we had to spend the night in a tent ... dozens of unlucky families with their children had to spend the night in their cars because there was no room for them either inside the village or in the tent community surrounding it.”

Some 240 families have entered Arsal during the past two days alone, according to Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fliti, who pleaded for the help of international organizations to provide these new refugees with necessary aid. Residents and local officials are preparing for many more arrivals.

The Syrian regime launched their offensive on the Qalamoun region, which stretches 70 km along Lebanon’s border, back in November in order to cut off rebel supply routes from Lebanon. The offensive was temporarily paused in December, according to security sources, while government troops were directed to fight for control of the city of Adra al-Ommaliyeh, but is now back on again.

In the past few weeks, Hezbollah media outlets and Syrian media have been gearing up for the upcoming battles and laying the groundwork to justify their inevitable presence there. Most noticeably, there have been a number of reports accusing the border town of Arsal of becoming a hub for preparing the explosives-laden cars that have been used to attack Beirut’s southern suburbs and the northern Bekaa Valley city of Hermel.

Yabroud, one of the major cities in Qalamoun, has been under the control of rebels since early last year and has served as a major smuggling hub for opposition fighters. It is also the town where a group of nuns seized last month by rebel groups in the historic Christian town of Maaloula are said to be held.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 12, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

The heavy artillery fire and intensified air raids just on the other side of Lebanon's northeastern borders have been resonating in the country's border villages, where residents of border towns such as Arsal are preparing for a new influx of refugees.

Those that come to Lebanon journey through two Syrian villages that face Arsal, Jraijir and Flita, a route that hundreds of Qalamoun residents have taken over the past months to flee fighting in the area.

Residents in villages who received warnings quickly gathered their belongings and headed to Arsal, Zhouri said.

Yabroud, one of the major cities in Qalamoun, has been under the control of rebels since early last year and has served as a major smuggling hub for opposition fighters.


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