BAALBEK, Lebanon: Lebanese troops, backed by heavy artillery and helicopter gunships, battled Syria-based jihadis on Lebanon’s northeastern border Friday, killing at least 18 militants and losing five soldiers.
Sixteen soldiers were also wounded in the fierce clashes which continued through Friday night in a serious escalation with Islamist militants entrenched in caves in the rugged mountains of the northeastern town of Arsal near the border with Syria.
A senior military official said the clashes, which began at 7:30 a.m. in Tallet al-Hamra and on the outskirts of the village of Ras Baalbek near Lebanon’s eastern frontier with Syria, caused “a large number of casualties among the terrorists.”
“The Army has lost five martyrs and 16 wounded,” the official told The Daily Star. He added that troops were using heavy artillery and helicopter gunships to pound militant hideouts on the outskirts of Arsal.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam threw his weight behind the Army in its ongoing battle against terrorism. He spoke by telephone with Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi to assure him of the government’s “full support” for the military’s action to defend Lebanon and safeguard the security of the Lebanese.
“The Lebanese stand united behind their Army. They have no choice but to win in this battle which has been imposed on them,” Salam said in statement released by his office.
“They will not let a bunch of terrorists break their national conviction and tamper with their stability.”
A security source said a soldier went missing and at least 18 militants were also killed in the clashes, which erupted after the militants attacked and tried to capture an Army post in Tallet al-Hamra.
“The terrorists’ attack came in response to the Army’s recent successes in foiling a series of suicide attacks and dismantling vehicles laden with explosives,” the military official said.
Earlier, the Army said in a statement that it recaptured the Tallet al-Hamra post after militants briefly overran it in the morning.
The statement said the attack came in light of an Army ambush Wednesday night against militants attempting to infiltrate the Wadi Hmayyed checkpoint in nearby Arsal, during which four militants were killed. The statement also linked the attack to the foiling of an attempt to transport a bomb-rigged car to Lebanon Thursday.
“As a result of the fierce clashes that erupted between the Army forces and terrorist groups, these forces tightened their control of Tallet al-Hamra at noon today after expelling the terrorist elements, inflicting a large number of casualties among them,” the statement said. It added that the Army suffered “a number of martyrs and wounded.”
“The Army will continue to boost its measures and target the gatherings and routes of the gunmen on the outskirts [of Arsal] with heavy weaponry, in addition to combing the area of the clashes in search for hiding gunmen,” the statement said.
Earlier Friday, Kahwagi warned the militants against tampering with the country’s stability. “The Army is carrying out its duties to the fullest, and it is able to repel any attempt to infiltrate peaceful villages in the eastern Bekaa Valley or [those] tampering with the internal stability on all Lebanese territory,” he told reporters at his office at the Defense Ministry in the Beirut suburb of Yarze.
Separately, a brief clash erupted overnight between militant groups themselves on the outskirts of Arsal. Local media said the fight pitted ISIS militants against Liwaa al-Tawhid, an armed rebel Syrian group that was originally formed to coordinate the battle for Aleppo.
The Army dismissed media reports that military outposts in Wadi Hmayyed and Wadi Hosn on Arsal’s outskirts came under militant attacks.
Militants last month ambushed an Army convoy on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek, killing six soldiers. ISIS and Nusra Front militants are still holding 25 soldiers and policemen hostage on Arsal’s outskirts after killing four.