ARSAL, Lebanon: After sealing off all the entrances to Arsal, a border town in the eastern Bekaa Valley, the Lebanese Army banned visitors from entering the village and brought in reinforcements.
As part of new security measures to crack down on an armed group that targeted a patrol over the weekend, leaving two dead and nine wounded, the Army called in reinforcements and increased its presence in and around the village. Dozens of personnel carriers were seen entering the village to increase patrols.
“No media allowed, turn around and go back,” soldiers told The Daily Star near the village entrance.
Media outlets were strictly forbidden from entering the village. Residents of Arsal were allowed back to their homes after their cars and belongings underwent a thorough search by the Army.
While Army forces on site refused to clarify why the ban was in place, a Future Movement delegation visiting Arsal was given entry after waiting for an hour.
The head of the Future Movement, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, telephoned the families of the victims and stressed that justice needs to take its “full course,” according to a statement released by his media office.
Hariri also called on Arsal residents to fully cooperate with the Lebanese Army and blasted attempts to “instigate strife” at the expense of the sacrifices of “the Lebanese Army and the people of Arsal.”
Following a meeting with local officials in Arsal, the Future Movement delegation called on President Michel Sleiman to establish an investigative committee to bring the criminals who attacked the Army to justice.
“[The] Army has been arresting people randomly on the streets all day long,” one local official told The Daily Star over the telephone.
The official said that although the Army has not raided any homes, many people were arrested and questioned. “Residents are being provoked and they are very disturbed from the [new] security measures.”
Also Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly called commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and expressed Washington’s deepest condolences for the attack on the Army in Arsal.Located on the slopes of the Anti-Lebanon mountain chain that divides Syria from the Bekaa Valley, Arsal has been a refuge for hundreds of Syrians fleeing unrest in neighboring towns and villages during the past two years and openly supports the rebellion against the Syrian regime.
Shelling from the Syrian side of the Arsal border has killed at least three Lebanese farmers since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began. The predominantly Sunni village was also the site of repeated incursions by the Syrian army and rebels.
The security measures imposed by the Army come in response to an ambush that killed Captain Pierre Bashaalani, 31, and Sergeant Ibrahim Zahraman, 32.
Bashaalani and Zahraman perished when they and nine others were ambushed along the mountain track, following a shootout with a wanted man in the village. The nine soldiers were severely wounded.
Security sources identified the wanted man who died during the shootout as Khalid Hmayyed. Wanted for “several acts of terrorism,” according to the Army, Hmayyed, along with another man, Hussein Hujeiri, allegedly took part in the kidnapping of seven Estonians in 2011.
The nine wounded were transferred to Dar al-Amal University Hospital in the nearby town of Douris.
Eyewitnesses and local officials in the Bekaa Valley said that many of the injured survived by chance. “Some were thought dead, that is why they survived,” an official from the nearby town of Laboueh said.
Only 3 kilometers away from Arsal, Laboueh is a predominantly Shiite village. One of the soldiers who survived the ambush was identified as Ali Ammar, a resident of Laboueh.
Laboueh’s Mayor Ramez Amhaz described Ammar’s survival as a “miracle.”
“Ali Ammar’s survival in that ambush helped us avoid a great deal of danger in this region,” Amhaz said in an interview with The Daily Star at Laboueh’s municipality building. “God only knows what would have happened had Ammar died of his wounds.”
According to Amhaz, there has been tension between Sunnis and Shiites in the area since May 2008.
“Just like we prevented clashes between residents back then, we helped contain the anger this weekend,” the mayor said.
“But how could we restrain the families [from starting a clash] if one of their members, the Lebanese Army soldier [Ali Ammar] was killed in the same brutal way as the two soldiers [Bashaalani and Zahraman]?” Amhaz asked.
Although the two villages have little in common today, they share a common history. An overwhelming majority of residents in both villages were members of Lebanon’s Communist Party.
Just a few meters from the municipality building, a memorial in honor of communists who fought the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon serves as a reminder of that history.
“We are very worried about this attack against the Army. We cannot but stand by the Army ... But we won’t allow a clash between our residents, [because] we share the same blood,” Amhaz said.
Accusing Syrian opposition fighters of infiltrating Arsal, Amhaz said that an ambush of an Army patrol is evidence of foreign elements within the town. “It is clear for us, the Army and many in Laboueh, that there are many members of the Free Syrian Army in Arsal.”
Some residents in Laboueh said that Hmayyed was fighting for the Syrian rebels.
“We disagree politically and there are no official contacts between Arsal and Laboueh anymore,” Amhaz said, adding that Laboueh’s residents have also provided shelter to refugees fleeing the violence in Syria.
“There are 600 Syrian families here and we just welcomed 30 new families ... This is our humanitarian obligation.”
In Al-Ain, another Shiite village, residents refused to describe the incident in Arsal as one motivated by sectarian tensions, but accused Arsal’s mayor of inciting strife.
“We are all Muslims, this is not a sectarian incident,” one woman said as she walked into a grocery store in the village. “How can Arsal residents target the Army if their sons are soldiers in this Army?”
Ali Bakr, the owner of the grocery shop, said that the mayor of Arsal, Ali Houjeiry, is the one to blame. “The mayor is the head of this gang and he should be held accountable,” Bakr said. “Quick action should be taken to protect the dignity and the position of the Lebanese Army.”