HERMEL, Lebanon: Sectarian tensions soared in the northeastern Bekaa Valley Friday, as a rocket attack killed eight people including five children in the town of Arsal, one day after a suicide attack killed five people in the town of Hermel.
Residents of Arsal accused Hezbollah of firing the five rockets, claims strongly denied by the party. The Lebanese Army said the rockets were fired from Syria.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, according to social media websites belonging to the group. The sites circulated a statement reportedly by ISIS saying that its fighters launched rockets against Free Syria Army headquarters in Arsal.
One of the rockets fell near the house of Zaher Hujeiry in the Shafaq neighborhood of Arsal, prompting his five children to flee from the house.
Shortly afterward, another rocket slammed the neighborhood killing each of the five children along with their friend, all aged between 2 and 11. The rockets also killed a 14-year-old and another victim. Fourteen people were wounded and transferred to hospital.
At 1 p.m., residents of Arsal held funerals for some victims, opening fire in the air.
The attack on predominantly Sunni Arsal came one day after a suicide bombing rocked the mainly Shiite town of Hermel, also in the northeastern Bekaa Valley, killing five.
Ali Hujeiry, the mayor of Arsal, along with prominent figures of the town, accused Hezbollah of firing the rockets on Arsal.
Residents of Arsal are supporters of the Syrian uprising and the town hosts thousands of Syrian refugees.
Hezbollah, which has joined Syria’s war alongside President Bashar Assad, has claimed that rigged cars which exploded in the Beirut southern suburbs in recent months have entered Lebanon through Arsal from rebel-held Syrian territories.
Hezbollah categorically denied accusations of shelling Arsal, describing such allegations as “dangerous.”
The Army confirmed the attacks on Arsal, saying 20 rockets and shells from Syria hit Ras Baalbek, Kawakh and Bwayda in Hermel, Masharih al-Qaa and Arsal, resulting in “casualties and material damage.” The attacks, according to the Army, took place between 10:45 a.m. and 12 p.m.
On Friday evening, the Army said seven rockets from the Syrian side fell on Khirbet Daoud on the outskirts of Arsal but left no casualties.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri condemned the “appalling massacre” in Arsal, saying it aimed at sparking strife.
“The deadly terrorist rockets, regardless of their source, have a clear goal: sparking strife and intimidating and terrorizing innocent people,” Hariri said in a statement.
“But I am confident that the patient and steadfast people of Arsal will heal their wounds and will not fall into the trap of hated strife,” Hariri added.
Ahmad Fliti, Arsal’s deputy mayor, claimed the rockets came from the neighboring Lebanese town of Labweh in Baalbek.
Tarek Hujeiry, whose house was hit by one of the rockets, blamed Hezbollah for the attack, describing the party as a gang.
“I call on Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, who claims to be empathetic, to tell us the reason for the shelling in the town today, which killed children,” said Hujeiry, who along with his wife was slightly wounded.
Another resident of Arsal said that he videotaped the firing and landing of the rockets, stressing that the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese area of Wadi Faara, which faces Arsal, was the source of the attack.
The rockets fell as fierce fighting was taking place between rebel groups and regime forces in the Syrian border towns of Qusair, Al-Rif, and Jousieh.
Arsal’s prominent figures held a meeting at the town’s municipality building Friday afternoon, pledging in a statement to defend Arsal against Hezbollah’s attacks.
“We will defend by all means our blood, dignity, children and people,” the statement said. The attendees added that aggression against Arsal would not make them retract their support for Syria’s uprising.
They called on the government of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to task the Higher Relief Committee with paying compensation to residents of Arsal for the damages incurred.
Meanwhile, President Michel Sleiman warned of the consequences of Lebanese involvement in the war across the border.
“Sleiman warned of the far-reaching consequences of being involved in the Syria crisis, which represents a high price to pay for the Lebanese in terms of coexistence, property and livelihoods,” said a statement from Baabda Palace.