HERMEL, Lebanon: Syrian rebels lobbed more rockets into Lebanese towns near the border Sunday, causing damage but no casualties, security sources said, with one attack landing at an orphanage home to 450 children.
The rocket attacks on the northeastern town of Hermel and the village of Al-Qasr come after threats by the rebel Free Syrian Army and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which have warned they would move the battle to Lebanon if Hezbollah continued to fight alongside Syrian soldiers.
The main Syrian opposition group called on Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately, warning their involvement in Syria could lead to greater risks in the area.
The SNC urged the Lebanese government to “adopt the necessary measures to stop the aggression of Hezbollah” and to control the border to “prevent further risks and to protect civilians in the area.”
Five rockets landed in Al-Qasr and Hawsh Sayyed Ali and two rockets slammed into the heart of Hermel Sunday, causing damage to buildings and parked cars but no casualties, a security source in Hermel said.
The last rocket in Al-Qasr, which landed Sunday evening around 7 p.m., hit the fence of the Imam Zein al-Abeedeen orphanage, next to a compound that houses 450 children, the National News Agency reported. The director of the orphanage, Mohammad al-Saeed, told the NNA that all of the students were safe because the administration moved them to the ampitheater after the earlier shelling. The attack shattered the windows of the orphanage. Another seven rockets had landed Saturday, with five hitting Al-Qasr and two crashing into the center of Hermel, heightening tension in the area and sparking calls by residents for Lebanese Army intervention to protect them against repeated attacks by Syrian rebels entrenched in the Syrian border town of Al-Qusair overlooking Hermel, a Hezbollah stronghold. No casualties were reported in Saturday’s attacks, the source said.
The rocket salvoes came as the Syrian army, backed by pro-regime militia, made new advances on Al-Qusair, activists and state media reported.
The fighting around Al-Qusair in Homs province has intensified in the past two weeks as the Syrian military, supported by pro-government fighters backed by Hezbollah, has launched a campaign to regain control of the border area.
The frontier region near Homs holds strategic value because it links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria’s Alawite minority, and is home to the country’s two main seaports, Latakia and Tartous.
Al-Qusair has been under rebel control for more than a year. Hadi al-Abdallah, an Al-Qusair-based activist, told AFP that Hezbollah fighters were instrumental to the Syrian army’s advance.
Hezbollah, which denies involvement in the fighting in Syria, has said it is helping Lebanese Shiites living in a cluster of Syrian border towns and villages to defend themselves against rebel assaults.
Hermel residents told The Daily Star there was fear in the town that violence would spread across the border because rockets from the Syrian side are gradually falling deeper into Lebanese territory.
President Michel Sleiman deplored the rocket attacks on Lebanese towns, saying such attacks would not achieve the Syrian people’s demands for democracy. He called on the Army to take measures to protect citizens. Sleiman followed up on the situation in the border towns with Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi.
“Targeting Lebanon with shells and rockets will not achieve the democracy demands, particularly that Lebanon is already burdened with what it can’t afford, which is hosting and sheltering Syrian refugees,” Sleiman said in a statement.
He added that Lebanon was committed to controlling the border with Syria in accordance with the Baabda Declaration, which calls for distancing Lebanon from regional conflicts, particularly the crisis in Syria.
Sleiman instructed the Army and officials “to take the necessary measures to prevent attacks on the Lebanese and protect their safety,” the statement said.
The rocket attacks came after residents of Al-Qasr in Hermel said they received text messages from Syria warning them that the FSA would bombard the village and Hermel. Schools closed in Al-Qasr shortly after.
Last week, two Lebanese were killed in rocket attacks on Al-Qasr and Hawsh Sayyed Ali carried out by Syrian rebels who claimed they targeted Hezbollah sites.
Most shelling has targeted border areas, but the weekend attack, described by Hezbollah as a dangerous precedent, was 15 km inside Lebanese territory.
Hermel’s Hezbollah MP Nawar Sahli accused Syrian rebels of seeking to drag the party into the war in Syria. He also criticized the Lebanese government for failing to protect citizens against Syrian rebel attacks.
Speaking to reporters at the site of where the rockets fell in Hermel, Sahli said: “The rocket attack on Hermel neighborhoods is a desperate reaction by defeated gangs that didn’t preserve the historical and geographic ties between Hermel and the Syrian neighborhood.”
“The gunmen wanted to send messages and drag us to enter into a war with them. This is the responsibility of the state and the government even though it has resigned. The Army must take all means to protect citizens,” Sahli said.
Speaking to Al-Jadeed TV in Hermel, Sahli said: “We did not see any political decision allowing the Lebanese Army to respond to the sources of fire from the Syrian side behind which are Syrian gunmen.”
He also noted that Hermel was hosting thousands of Syrian refugees, saying whoever fired the rockets was targeting their own people and warned of retaliatory measures if similar attacks persisted.
One of Saturday’s rockets fell in the garden of Hasan Nasreddine’s house, while another damaged the second floor of a house belonging to Hussein Nasreddine. The two homes are approximately 300 meters apart. Security forces and the Lebanese Army cordoned off the areas and inspected the damage.
Residents in Hermel have urged the authorities to protect them against attacks by Syrian rebels, threatening to take measures themselves to stop the attacks, including not receiving or treating wounded Syrians if the shelling continues.
“ Hermel will not keep silent from now on and it is capable of defending itself. But [Lebanese] officials are duty-bound to protect the region’s residents from shelling,” said Mustafa Taha, head of the union of Hermel municipalities.