Lebanon News

War tensions ratchet up along northern border

Three of Mahmoud Ismael's children playing with shrapnel collected from their home in Nourat al-Tahta hours after the village was shelled by Syrian artillery. (The Daily Star/Nicholas Blanford)

NOURAT AL-TAHTA, Lebanon: At least four shell craters filled with water from the previous night’s storm were visible within 100 meters of Mahmoud Ismail’s three-story home.

A fifth shell had struck the edge of the roof, knocking out chunks of concrete and sending vicious shards of heavy steel shrapnel scything into the cement parapet or burying into the soft earth below.

“It was a terrifying night. We all thought we would be killed,” said Ismail surveying the damage Thursday morning while his family swept shards of glass off the floor.

Ismail lives on the edge of Nourat al-Tahta, a Sunni-populated village in Akkar perched above the steep Kabir river valley which marks the border with Syria. This otherwise unremarkable rural village has found itself in recent months caught in the swirl of war on the northern side of the river. Since May, the village and others nearby have been subjected to nightly shelling by Syrian army batteries.

Until recently, the shelling in Nourat al-Tahta was confined mainly to the open fields and scrubland outside the village and along the river’s edge. But in the past week, the shelling has intensified, villagers say, and focused more closely on inhabited areas.

Ismail’s children scampered across a field studded by a few gnarled olive trees and picked up shards of shrapnel. The shrapnel and size of the craters suggested the Syrians were firing 130mm artillery shells into the village.

One crater lay just 10 meters from the house. The blast had smashed the windows, showering Aiyat Ismail, Mahmoud’s 1-year-old daughter, with glass as she lay asleep.

“In the summer they shelled along the river, then they shelled the edges of our fields and now they are shelling our homes. If it carries on like this we will have to leave,” Ismail said.

He added that an army patrol had visited him after the four-hour bombardment had ended around midnight.

“They said we could expect more shelling,” Ismail said. “I asked them to contact the Syrians and get them to stop. They said there was nothing they could do and that they were being hit as well.”

Still, the shelling is not as random as it might appear. Asked why he thought the Syrian army was targeting Nourat al-Tahta, Ismail lowered his voice and said, “Look, the place is full of Free Syrian Army.”

Indeed, it is common knowledge that Nourat al-Tahta, like other Sunni-populated villages in the area, is deeply supportive of the Syrian revolution and harbors civilian refugees and FSA militants alike. The Syrian shelling is intended to hit FSA members who slip across the border into Syria at night to stage attacks against regime forces as well as to punish those Lebanese who provide assistance and a safe haven for the militants. According to a Lebanese member of the FSA who lives in the area, the shelling on Nourat al-Tahta intensified lately because it was from there that the group of Sunni rebel volunteers from Tripoli set out two weeks ago to reach Tal Kalakh before falling into a deadly ambush. The FSA militant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the Tripoli volunteers were set up by a former FSA commander from the village of Halat which lies opposite Nourat al-Tahta.

“The commander wanted the group to act under his orders but they refused,” he said. “The commander told the regime that the group was heading toward Tal Kalakh and the regime set up an ambush.”

He added that the FSA commander had fled Halat and was in hiding somewhere in Lebanon. According to the militant, 14 of the 20 volunteers were killed in the ambush and another three were captured.

“One of the three called us from his cellphone and asked us to send men into Syria to help get them out. But we knew it was a trap and that the soldiers who caught them were trying to lure us into another ambush,” he said. “Instead, we fired tracer rounds [from an AK-47 rifle] into the air and told them to head toward the tracer.”

He said he believed the three prisoners were subsequently executed. As for the remaining three who escaped the ambush, a Syrian from Tal Kalakh who specializes in smuggling weapons and ammunition from Lebanon into Syria, slipped across the river into Halat and guided them out.

The Syrian army shelling and clandestine FSA activities underline the irrelevance of state control in the northern Akkar. Nourat al-Tahta and other villages along the Kabir river have essentially become active front lines in Syria’s savage civil war.

The Lebanese FSA militant said that three Alawites from Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli who were fighting with the pro-regime “shabbiha” militia had been captured by rebels near Krak des Chevaliers, the Crusader-era fortress 16 kilometers north of Nourat al-Tahta which has been in FSA hands for over a year.

“We brought them back to Lebanon and we are holding them,” he said.

What did he plan to do with the prisoners?

The militant said nothing but in an unmistakable gesture drew a hand slowly across his throat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 22, 2012, on page 1.




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