BEIRUT: The Muslim Scholars Committee Thursday condemned the human rights violations allegedly occurring during military raids on Syrian refugee camps in Arsal, as the Army's leadership denied having imposed a siege on the northeastern border town.
“We condemn the attacks on the Army but the collective punishment of Syrian refugees cannot be justified,” the scholars said in a press conference Thursday afternoon, indirectly blaming Lebanese soldiers for committing illegal actions.
“We call for a transparent and impartial investigation of the violations, from the burning of camps to the torturing of detainees in Arsal,” the statement added.
The Army had been conducting wide raids on Syrian refugee sites in Arsal over the last few days in search of militants accused of collaborating with extremist groups during last month's deadly clashes in the town.
22 individuals suspected of belonging to terrorist groups that participated in clashes between militants and the Lebanese Army in Arsal last month were detained during a raid Thursday, according to an Army statement.
The Army also detained 36 refugees for entering the country illegally, the statement added.
A earlier statement said that during a raid Thursday morning at a Syrian refugee camp in the Arsal area, three individuals on a motorcycle attempted to burn another nearby Syrian tented settlement.
The Army opened fire and wounded the three of them, who were detained for interrogations. An earlier Army statement had said that one of the perpetrators had been killed.
Calling on the Army’s leadership “to put an end to all violations and deal with the matter with the highest level of wisdom,” the Muslim Scholars committee was considering filing a complaint to human rights organizations over Thursday’s events.
As tensions rise over the Army raids, Lebanese Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi sought to reassure Arsal residents that the military was working to protect them not punish them.
"Arsal is not under siege," he said following a meeting with Lebanon's new grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Latif Derian.
“The Army is keen on the security and safety of our people in Arsal," he added, explaining that the military clampdown was aimed at preventing the militants, who are scattered around Arsal’s outskirts, from infiltrating the town “and attacking residents.”
According to Lebanese security sources, the Army has recently detained about 450 suspected Islamist militants near Arsal, Reuters reported. The Army has arrested hundreds of suspects in north and northeast Lebanon since the crackdown on the militants began last month.
Locals and crowds of Syrian refugees rallied in Arsal's main square earlier in the day to protest against the Army's measures. Some of them reportedly carried the flag of ISIS, an extremist group that along with Nusra Front was involved in August's battle for Arsal.
During the fighting, militants took dozens of Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage as they retreated from the town. They have released seven captives so far and killed three. Some 21 men are still in their hands.
On Thursday, the families of these remaining hostages stepped up their protests in a bid to press the government to speed up efforts to secure the release of their loved ones.
They briefly blocked the Zahle-Tarshish highway in east Lebanon in both directions and the Qalamoun road in north Lebanon. The protesters also maintained a sit-in on the Dahr al-Baidar highway that links Beirut with the Bekaa Valley.
The protesters called on the Cabinet to make a bold decision to free the troops or else expect further escalations in protests. They also apologized to citizens for closing the roads, calling on “the Lebanese people” to support them because the soldiers were the "whole nation’s sons.”
In a separate statement, the Army said it had referred Hussein Jaafar, who was detained Sept. 21 during a raid on his house in the Bekaa Valley, to judicial authorities for further interrogation.
The statement said Jaafar was wanted for multiple offenses, including opening fire on an Army patrol, exchanging fire with soldiers, kidnappings and robbery at gunpoint.
The Army said military gear in Jaafar's possession had also been confiscated.