HERMEL, Lebanon: Hezbollah and the Syrian regime tightened the noose on armed rebels fighting in the mountainous regions straddling the border between Lebanon and Syria, in a major push to uproot fighters opposed to the embattled Assad regime. Hezbollah fighters gained control of hills surrounding rebel hideouts in the border province of Qalamoun and in the mountains bordering Shiite villages in northeastern Lebanon, helping seal off food and ammunition supply lines to the stranded fighters, a security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Daily Star.
Most of the fighters belong to the Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, the security source said. But some of the fighters are believed to have pledged allegiance to the Al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), after its advances in Iraq.
Battles raged in Qalamoun, which lies opposite to the mountainous region bordering the pro-Syrian opposition town of Arsal, and in the mountains surrounding Shiite villages like Labweh, Nahlet Younin and Al-Ain in Lebanon’s northeast, between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime armed with warplanes on one side and opposition rebels on the other.
The security source said that Hezbollah is monitoring the supply lines to the rebels and is firing at any groups that attempt to provide them with aid, saying the combined siege by the party backed by the Syrian military has effectively shut off provisions from rebels concentrated in the mountainous terrain in Qalamoun and Arsal’s borders and closed off the road linking the two regions.
The security source said the current strategy is one of attrition, aimed at starving the rebels of ammunition and food ahead of a major operation by Hezbollah and the Syrian military to crush the rebels.
Labweh’s mayor Ramez Amhaz told The Daily Star that a coordinated push including Hezbollah, the Syrian and the Lebanese armies targeting armed groups in the mountainous terrain surrounding the town of Arsal is being planned, but declined to specify the time of the operation. He said efforts were underway to ensure that Arsal was not involved or affected by the operation.
Word of the campaign provoked a response by the Future Movement’s coordinator in Arsal Bakr Hujeiri, who said the Lebanese Army must explain if it is fighting in an alliance with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.
Hujeiri said such an operation could increase tensions between the embattled, Sunni-majority Arsal and its Shiite neighbors as well as Hezbollah. Hujeiri said the outskirts of Arsal had been targeted by rockets emanating from areas controlled by Hezbollah.
Tensions between Arsal and its neighbors have flared up repeatedly since the crisis in Syria. The town is sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, and has been accused of harboring rebel fighters. Shiite villages in the area have been targeted by cross-border rocket attacks and rebel fighters are believed to be taking refuge in the mountainous area bordering Arsal, poised to strike at nearby Shiite villages in Lebanon.
Two rockets hit the outskirts of Hermel late Wednesday, but no casualties were reported. Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station, aired footage of a large funeral for one of its fighters in the Western Bekaa Valley, led by Hezbollah officials and MPs. The deceased was identified as Ali Musa Musa.
Elsewhere in northern Lebanon, the family of three Lebanese smugglers distanced itself from the kidnapping and ransoming of Syrian refugees carried out by the men, and called on the Lebanese authorities to arrest and punish them.
The Ghazi family, from the village of Rama in Wadi Khaled, issued a statement Wednesday rejecting the criminal acts of three members of the family – who have been kidnapping Syrian refugees and ransoming them to the Syrian army as a means to compensate “poor business” across the border with Syria, whose three-year conflict has dented their smuggling activities.
The family’s statement identified the three by their initials only but was unequivocal in its rejection of their acts.
“The family stresses that the kidnapping of Syrian refugees for handover to the Syrian authorities in exchange for a ransom does not reflect its values, but is an act of barbarism which it strongly denounces,” the statement said.
It also called on the Lebanese authorities to act immediately to arrest the perpetrators and carry out the “most severe punishment,” stressing that the family would not give them any cover.
Security sources said four Syrian refugees were kidnapped over the weekend by a three-man gang and turned over to the Syrian army across the border.
They said one member of the gang was arrested by security forces, while the remaining two, including the gang’s leader, managed to escape.
According to the sources, the latest kidnapping brought the number of refugees who were lured by the culprits and handed over to the Syrian authorities to 12.
“They promise the refugees that they will smuggle them in and out of Syria, and once they are on the Syrian side of the border they hand them over,” the sources said.
They said the smugglers received $1,000 for each person handed over, in addition to the $100 the refugees paid for the “service provided.”
And in another security-related development, Israeli troops kidnapped a shepherd from the southern Lebanese village of Shebaa early Wednesday, the state-run National News Agency said.
NNA said the shepherd, Ismail Khalil Nabaa, was taken to the nearby Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms.
U.N. peacekeepers are exerting efforts with Israel to ensure his release, NNA added.
Israeli troops often kidnap shepherds only to free them hours later.