BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Arsal residents play down clash between Army, Syrian rebels

Villagers on motorcycles ride in Khirbet Dawoud, about five kilometers northeast of Arsal, Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. (The Daily Star/Nidal Solh)

ARSAL, Lebanon: Life in the town of Arsal appeared normal Sunday, two days after a clash between the Lebanese Army and members of the Free Syrian Army, with residents and elected leaders alike downplaying the size of the fight. Security sources said members of the FSA surrounded a Lebanese Army post near the border Friday in an attempt to free three FSA members who had been arrested earlier that day.

The Army had been monitoring the area when the three FSA members crossed in a pickup truck, carrying weapons into Lebanon, according to the source.

Members of the FSA attacked the post Friday night, and the Army responded with reinforcements, who stayed on in case security deteriorated again. Pursued by the Army, members of the FSA fled into the mountains and toward some border towns, an Army statement said.

But Arsal mukhtar Mohammad Houjeiri denied even that an armed clash took place, maintaining that it was only a verbal fight, and the problem was resolved peacefully.

“The situation is the town is normal,” he said.

Houjeiri also denied suggestions that any members of the FSA are hiding in Arsal’s arid mountains, especially as the sparse vegetation makes it difficult to hide.

“However, inside Syria, especially in the mountains of Mearat and Naaman and Jibbeh, which are heavily forested,, there are large numbers of FSA members,” he said, adding that it is difficult to distinguish the border between Lebanon and Syria in the area as it has not been demarcated.

On Sunday, the town’s streets were filled with cars and pedestrians, crowded with some 1,400 Syrian refugee families who have arrived since the beginning of the uprising 18 months ago.

Most of them live in homes offered by town residents and inside a courtyard in one of the town mosques.

According to Ismail Baridi, a taxi driver, Arsal’s residents have been generous with the refugees and showed solidarity in the face of the Syrian regime.

“But when it comes to attacking the Lebanese Army, we condemn and reject it because any strike against the Army is a humiliation for every Lebanese and signals a return to the Civil War, which we never thought we’d be done with,” he added.

“The Lebanese are still experiencing the destructive consequences of the War and this could bring a renewal of sectarianism and fragmentation.”

Khaled Fliti, a schoolteacher, said clashes on the border in Arsal have become a daily occurrence, but the media is blowing it out of proportion.

“The majority of the town’s residents no longer care, as the area where the clashes take place is on rough, mountainous terrain near a post of the Syria army,” Fliti said.

“It takes an hour by car to get there and the road is full of potholes,” he said.

“Only smugglers and a few farmers use it.”

Arsal mayor Ali Houjeiri also downplayed reports of the recent clashes and showed surprise at the attention Friday’s events have caused.

“It was a small dispute,” he said, while also stressing that the town would not allow any attack on the Lebanese Army.

The mayor said he hoped an agreement would be brokered between the armies of Lebanon and Syria so that Syrian violations across the border would stop.

“If such an agreement is made, we would not allow even Syrian civilians to cross the border,” he said.

“But how could we make such a decision when there are around 200 Arsal families who have been displaced because their homes were too close to the border in Masharih al-Qaa?” he asked.

“The Syrian army destroyed the homes in the area.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 24, 2012, on page 3.

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