HERMEL, Lebanon: Further fighting broke out Monday night along the Lebanese-Syrian border following fierce battles which flared over the weekend between Syrian rebels and Hezbollah as the group seeks to root out the last opposition fighters from the region.
At least seven Hezbollah fighters and over 30 Syrian rebels were killed in the clashes, which erupted Saturday night in the border area between Baalbek, Arsal and the Syrian village of Nahleh, sources told The Daily Star.
In April, Syrian forces backed by allied fighters from Hezbollah retook control of most of the Qalamoun region. According to a high-level source, Hezbollah started mobilizing more than 200 fighters along with medium and heavy weaponry about a week ago in a bid to smoke out the last remaining pockets of resistance in the area.
Saturday night, fighters began fanning out from the outskirts of Baalbek toward Qalamoun to surround the opposition, and cut it off from the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal, whose residents highly sympathize with the Syrian Opposition.
However, upon their approach to one of the areas where rebel groups were known to be active, Hezbollah cadres came under heavy gun and missile fire, and several fighters were killed. Their companions responded in kind and the battle raged into Sunday.
The source said Hezbollah succeeded in removing most of its dead and wounded during the clashes by creating a new road on the outskirts of Baalbek, which the group uses to facilitate movement of fighters over the border and back while remaining hidden from Lebanese Army soldiers stationed on the outskirts of Baalbek. The Hezbollah casualties were identified as Zakaria Faisal Sajad from Hermel; Mohammad Ali Hammoudi from Srifa, Bilal Keserwani from Nabatieh, Nadim Mohammad Moqdad from Maqneh, Yahya Mohammad al-Zarkali from Baalbek, and Ali al-Nimr from Kouwakh. Another 50 were wounded and taken to Dar al-Hikmah hospital in Baalbek. The seventh killed fighter could not be immediately identified. The funerals of some of the dead were held in areas across Lebanon.
The body of three Syrian fighters, including one identified as Omar Birdawi, were taken to a field clinic in Arsal, along with pieces of an unidentified body and about 10 others who were wounded in the fighting. Security sources said that Lebanese Ahmad Yaqzan, a senior Nusra Front commander, was killed in the battles.
At least four civilians were also being treated from shrapnel wounds at Rahma Hospital in Arsal. They were identified as Badria Hammoud, 16, Fatoum Hammoud, 22, Fatima Amoun, 23, and Nidal Idriss, 23. A doctor in Arsal reported some of the wounded civilians had been working the cherry harvest nearby, including a pregnant woman whose condition was critical.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Hezbollah managed to capture 14 fighters from the Nusra Front and Islamic Battalion.
The Lebanese Army Monday launched an air and ground search for militants who potentially crossed the border into Lebanon from Syria, the National News Agency said. The state-run agency said the military was looking for the militants and wanted individuals in the outskirts of Ras Baalbek and other border areas to the east, but did not refer to the ongoing fighting there.
Meanwhile, armed men from Labweh opened fire on a pick-up truck belonging to Lebanese national Khaled Hujeiri, who was wounded in his stomach and legs. He was taken to Dar al-Amal hospital in Baalbek, then transferred to Riyaq Hospital for treatment. – Additional reporting by Elise Knutsen