BEIRUT/ARSAL, Lebanon: A suicide bomber killed at least three people, including two Hezbollah members, and wounded 11 others in the east Lebanon village of Nabi Othman Sunday night, security sources said, in what was interpreted as a direct response to the group’s joint military campaign in the Syrian city of Yabroud.
The suicide attack came as the Syrian army launched several airstrikes around the border town of Arsal, hours after gaining control of Yabroud, as fears mounted that the flocking of Syrian fighters to the town would expose it to more security incidents.
Sources said the bomber detonated a dark green Grand Cherokee, rigged with 120 kilograms of explosives, right as Hezbollah security personnel, identified as Abdel-Rahim al-Qadi and Khalil Khalil, intercepted the car and tried to block its path. Both men died in the explosion, as did a woman, identified as Wahideh Nazha.
The Nusra Front in Lebanon claimed responsibility for the attack, the first bombing in Lebanon in 22 days, saying it was a “quick response” to Hezbollah’s “bragging” about the “rape” of Yabroud, vowing to bring the fight from the fallen Syrian city to Lebanon.
The fall of Yabroud was the source of celebration for resistance supporters. Groups of Hezbollah youth were seen on motorcycles leading a celebratory parade along Beirut’s southern suburbs after the military campaign reclaimed the strategic city.
The demonstration drew harsh criticism from Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, who said that rejoicing over Yabroud was “delusional” and would “contribute to deepening feelings of hatred,” according to a statement from his office.
The Syrian army conducted at least 20 air raids targeting the outskirts of the border town in the past two days, frequently targeting illegal crossings leading from the Syrian border village of Flita to Arsal, as the Lebanese Army moved to halt infiltration by rebels fleeing Yabroud.
At 10:30 a.m. and 3:20 p.m. Sunday, Syrian military aircraft shelled several positions in the outskirts of Arsal in their pursuit of gunmen fleeing Syria, according to a statement from the Army.
Speaking to The Daily Star, a Lebanese Army source said it had no verified information that Syrian opposition fighters had crossed into Lebanon via Arsal, however the source confirmed that wounded Syrians had been permitted to enter the town.
About 7 dead bodies and 100 wounded entered Arsal for medical help, according to the National News Agency. “It is a vast area,” the source said, describing the 20-kilometer stretch that separates Arsal from the Syrian frontier. “We are working on gathering accurate information about this issue.”
Another senior security source, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Star that an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 opposition fighters were dispersed in the mountainous areas near Arsal’s eastern border with Syria.
Bassem al-Faris, a doctor working at the Al-Rahma Hospital in Arsal, said he had received six wounded individuals, all fighters from Yabroud. Meanwhile, Kassem al-Zein, who runs a field hospital in the town, said three children, four women and two fighters were killed over the weekend due to the Syrian army raids.
Arsal faces the double-pronged threat of intrusion by rebels from Syria to the east, and Hezbollah members stationed to the west alongside residents of the neighboring Shiite towns of Labweh and Nabi Othman, who are eager to avenge the death of a local boy from a rocket attack Saturday.
Residents of Labweh alleged that the rocket had been launched from Arsal, where the majority of residents are supportive of the Syrian uprising against the regime. The attack, which killed one and wounded three others, was claimed by ISIS, citing Hezbollah’s military actions in Yabroud.
In light of the heightened security situation, the Lebanese Army erected additional checkpoints at the outskirts of Arsal and on the main road leading to Labweh.
Labweh Mayor Ramez Amhaz kept up intense contacts with Arsal officials throughout the day to calm tensions between the two towns, following Saturday’s rocket attack.
Amhaz told The Daily Star that officials from Arsal had promised to end the barrage of rocket targeting his town.
“We insist that we and the residents of Arsal are one family, but it is their responsibility to safeguard these relations by taking practical measures to prevent armed fighters, and those who protect them, from targeting our villages,” Amhaz said, adding his village would take up arms if need be to defend itself.
Residents of Arsal expressed unease about what the coming days might bring. Many feared the fall of Yabroud might lead to spillover, with clashes between fleeing opposition fighters and Army soldiers deployed in the outskirts, and Hezbollah members as well as Shiite residents from neighboring villages partaking in the fight.
Efforts launched by local officials in Arsal to convince opposition fighters from ceasing their attacks were unsuccessful, according to local Mohammad Hujeiri.
A delegation of 50 figures from the village went to meet with opposition figures to convince them to stop launching rockets on Shiite villages, “because these attacks were indirectly harming Arsal,” Hujeiri said. Roads leading to the town are often blocked after such attacks, depriving some residents of food, medicine and fuel, he added.
But the opposition groups were unresponsive, as Saturday’s attack attested, Hujeiri said. The efforts of the delegation have come to a halt and they are now “expecting the worst.”
Until they are more cooperative, “[Arsal] will not allow any armed Syrian opposition fighters in, and it will not allow itself to be the starting place of internal sectarian strife in Lebanon,” Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fliti told The Daily Star.
“What has been circulated [in the media] about the arrival of armed men to the village is not true,” he stressed. – Additional reporting by Elise Knutsen