HERMEL, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army continued Wednesday night a major manhunt on the outskirts of Arsal after it ended a pitched battle with gunmen in which five soldiers were wounded.
The search operation was launched after the gunmen ambushed an Army unit close to the border with Syria.
The unit was passing through the Rahwa region on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal when dozens of gunmen who were already deployed throughout the area began shooting at them, according to a security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station, said the Army was raiding a farm where they suspected a car bomb was being rigged when they were ambushed. But a military source denied the claim.
Soldiers responded to the source of fire, resulting in intermittent clashes that continued for hours.
The security source told The Daily Star that the Army patrol first attempted to withdraw from the fighting under covering fire, but several of the soldiers were wounded in the intense exchange.
The Army’s airborne regiment and helicopters arrived on the scene to assist the patrol and carried out bombing raids on areas where the gunmen were deployed, the security source said.
The military deployed tanks and armored vehicles to the area and launched a manhunt for the gunmen, some of whom fled toward the border.
Syrian Army helicopters circled over Arsal and also bombed gunmen’s hideouts in cooperation with the Lebanese Army, the security source said. But a military source denied that any airborne units were involved in the operation and that any coordination with the Syrian military had taken place.
In a statement, the Army confirmed the ambush, which occurred at 1:25 p.m., saying the fighting was still raging at 5 p.m.
The National News Agency reported that Syrian gunmen carried out the ambush.
The military said that none of the gunmen had been detained, claiming that they fled to an “unknown location, ” though the NNA reported that four Syrians had been arrested in the area.
A little-known Lebanese group, Liwaa Ahrar Al-Sunna, claimed responsibility the attack, saying it targeted “the crusader army.”
“Our free mujahedeen inflicted heavy losses on the crusader army,” the group wrote on Twitter. It has claimed previous rocket attacks against Lebanese towns associated with Hezbollah.
Similar groups have previously accused the military of covering for and cooperating with Hezbollah, whom they resent for militarily supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
In March, three soldiers were killed and four others were wounded in a suicide car bomb attack on a military post on the outskirts of Arsal. The attack was later claimed by an Al-Qaeda-linked rebel group fighting in Syria.
In a separate event, two rockets hit Labweh in the Bekaa Valley. Over the past 12 months, the town, where support for Hezbollah is high, has been subjected to several similar rocket attacks that have been claimed by Syrian rebel groups.