HERMEL, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army stepped up security measures along the northern border with Syria Monday, detonating a rigged car and arresting suspects, in efforts to reduce spillover from the crisis in neighboring Syria.
The Army said in a statement that explosive experts blew up a vehicle in the village of Ras Baalbek in northeast Lebanon, loaded with around 170 kilograms of explosives.
The statement said that Army Intelligence spotted the car in an unpopulated area near a school after it received information that it could be rigged with explosives.
Due to the danger of dismantling or even moving the vehicle, the Army made the decision to detonate it in place, the statement said.
Security sources told The Daily Star that the silver Grand Cherokee, whose driver had fled, was believed to have been accompanying the rigged car that exploded in the village of Nabi Othman Sunday.
They added that both came from Syria and had taken the same route.
Fears mounted about the security situation in northeast Lebanon after the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah, regained control of the previously rebel-held bastion of Yabroud Sunday.
Many gunmen from the Syrian opposition fled Yabroud to the mountainous outskirts of Arsal. Residents of the Bekaa Valley village support the Syrian rebels and host thousands of Syrian refugees.
Speaking to The Daily Star, an Army source said that Lebanese soldiers from the airborne regiment had deployed on the northern border in a bid to prevent the infiltration of gunmen and entry of rigged cars.
Army units conducted sweeps on the outskirts of several border towns in the Bekaa Valley, particularly Arsal, Ras Baalbek and Fakiha.
The military worked to seal all illegal border crossings along the northeastern border.
The Army said that one of its units detained 19 Syrian gunmen and two Lebanese trying to cross into Lebanon through the northern Akkar region of Wadi Khaled near the border with Syria.
The Army said that an AK-47, two pistols, ammunition, 30 cell phones, a laptop and money in different currencies were confiscated during the arrests.
Also Monday, one rocket landed in the village of Labweh and three others hit the outskirts of the town and Nabi Othman in northeast Lebanon. Both villages are associated with Hezbollah.
The Army said the rockets were fired from Syrian territory at 1:30 p.m. and left one wounded along with causing material damage.
But security sources said that the rockets were launched by gunmen positioned in the mountainous outskirts of Arsal inside Lebanon.
The sources added that the family of Labweh resident Mohammad Ammar narrowly escaped death when a rocket hit their house.
Angry residents of Labweh blocked the road linking the village to Arsal in retaliation.
Explosions were also heard in Arsal. The sources said this was from retaliatory rocket attacks targeting launchers in Arsal from which the rockets were fired.
Residents of the two villages exchanged sniper fire around the area of Wadi al-Shuob, which separates Arsal from Labweh. This prompted some residents of the area to leave their homes.
Ramez Amhaz, Labweh’s mayor, told The Daily Star that efforts were being made by prominent figures in northern Bekaa to defuse tension between the two villages.
He said that residents of Labweh blocked the road to Arsal in order to protect it from any retaliatory attack on the road.
For his part, Baker Hujeiry, a Future Movement official in Arsal, said that the group had asked the Lebanese Army to take control of the border.
Amhaz and Hujeiry both said they were optimistic that the situation in the area would improve in the coming days.
“What we are witnessing is a result of tensions from the fall of Yabroud. I think tensions will ease in the coming days,” Hujeiry said.
Speaking to other media outlets, Amhaz urged residents of Arsal to cooperate with the state to clear Arsal of Syrian rebels.
He accused Mustafa Hujeiry, from Arsal, of establishing makeshift hospitals in the town to treat members of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) fleeing Syria.
The discovery of the rigged car in Ras Baalbek came hours after 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 evening.
The Nusra Front in Lebanon claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was a “quick response” to Hezbollah’s “bragging” about the “usurping” of Yabroud.Forensic experts collected evidence from the explosion site Monday, where extensive damage was evident.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement that the green Grand Cherokee that exploded had been rigged with around 100 kg of explosives.
Sources familiar with investigation said the vehicle had taken a sandy smuggling route through the mountainous outskirts of Arsal and was heading toward the area of Wadi Rafiq facing the village of Ras Baalbek. The Grand Cherokee then headed to the village of Fakiha and took the international road.
The sources said the car’s planned destination was believed to have been Labweh or another village in the northern Bekaa Valley. The identity of the suicide bomber has yet to be identified.
President Michel Sleiman praised intense efforts made by security services to prevent terrorists from carrying out their plans.
He called on security bodies to remain alert and coordinate with each other in order to preserve civil peace.
For his part, Prime Minister Tammam Salam urged the Army to take measures in order to control the situation in border regions in the Bekaa Valley.
He made his remarks to military chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi who visited him at the Grand Serail.
The spokesperson of the French Foreign Ministry condemned the Nabi Othman explosion, cross-border attacks and violence in the city of Tripoli.
For its part, the U.S. Embassy slammed the “act of terror,” calling on all parties in Lebanon to respect the disassociation policy and abstain from acts that endangered Lebanon’s stability and security.