BEIRUT: Syria’s threat to strike at rebels taking shelter in Lebanon evoked fresh calls Friday by the opposition March 14 parties for the deployment of the Lebanese Army and U.N. troops along the border to prevent a Syrian attack on Lebanese territory.
The Syrian threat, reflecting an escalation of tension on the border, raised fears of the 2-year-old bloody conflict in Syria spilling over into Lebanon, where rival factions are sharply divided over the crisis next door.
The threat, which was contained in a letter sent by the Syrian Foreign Ministry to its Lebanese counterpart Thursday, was translated into action Friday when a string of northern Lebanese villages near the border came under Syrian gunfire, wounding civilian Zuhair Mustafa, the state-run National News Agency reported.
Responding to the Syrian warning, President Michel Sleiman said Lebanon would not allow the flow of arms and gunmen from its territory into Syria.
“The Syrian Foreign Ministry’s statement is being studied and we will take the appropriate stance on it. Lebanon has adopted a disassociation policy on the Syrian events. This position was translated into the Baabda Declaration,” Sleiman told a news conference in the Ivory Coast as part of his African tour.
He said Lebanon had adopted a policy of neutrality on the conflict in Syria, adding that this stance was taken at the U.N. Security Council, the Arab League and all international forums.
“Lebanon, according to this [Baabda] Declaration, will not allow itself to serve as a crossing point for arms and gunmen across its border,” Sleiman said. “It will not allow the establishment of military bases or security centers for gunmen on its territory.”
“The Lebanese Army is charged with preventing all these phenomena which constitute a violation of the Baabda Declaration. We are concerned and responsible for preventing the infiltration of arms and gunmen across the border between the two countries,” Sleiman added.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati did not comment on the Syrian threat, although it apparently prompted him to meet with Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi to discuss measures to prevent a deterioration of the situation on the tense Lebanese-Syrian frontier.
Mikati discussed with Kahwagi “the security situation and the military establishment’s affairs,” the NNA said, without giving further details.
The Syrian warning was believed to have figured high in talks between Mikati and Speaker Nabih Berri at the latter’s residence in Ain al-Tineh.
“We discussed the situation at all levels. It was an extremely good session. As usual, I and Speaker Berri talk about all subjects and see what steps should be taken to consolidate stability and security,” Mikati told reporters after the meeting.
The Syrian threat coincided with a U.N. Security Council statement on incidents on the border and arms smuggling between Lebanon and Syria. The statement expressed deep concern over the impact of the conflict in Syria on Lebanon’s security.
Mikati praised the U.N. statement. “The presidential statement issued yesterday [Thursday] by the Security Council is welcomed and constructive. We agree with it and we take all that [was mentioned] into consideration,” he said.
Syria, which has repeatedly called on Lebanon to stop arms smuggling and the flow of gunmen into Syria from Lebanese territory, warned in the letter it would attack “armed gangs” in Lebanon if incursions into Syrian territory continued.
The letter said Syrian troops were still exercising self-restraint by not striking “concentrations of armed gangs inside Lebanese territory in order to prevent them from crossing into Syrian territory.”
“But this will not last indefinitely,” the letter warned.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc, denounced the Syrian threat and called on the government to deploy the Army on the border with Syria.
He described the Syrian threat as “a dangerous development” in relations between the two neighboring countries.
Siniora added that the government must take measures to prevent gunmen from using Lebanese territory as a launching pad for attacks on Syrian territory.
“Preventing the use of Lebanese territory for any acts in the direction of Syrian territory by any party is vested with the relevant Lebanese authorities which must deploy on the border and prevent any violations,” Siniora said. He added the Army must prevent and repel any Syrian attack on Lebanese citizens and towns.
Siniora warned any Syrian attack on Lebanese territory would have unforeseeable consequences, urging the government to inform the Arab League and the Security Council of the Syrian threat.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea renewed a March 14 demand to deploy the Army along with U.N. troops on the border with Syria.
“The situation on the Lebanese-Syrian border is worrisome, particularly following the recent threats issued by the Bashar Assad regime to attack and shell border areas,” Geagea said in a statement.
“If the number and equipment of the Army are not sufficient, then the government should ask the Security Council to implement Article 11 and 14 of Resolution 1701 to expand the mandate of U.N. troops [based in the south] and help the Army in protecting the northeastern border,” he added.
Meanwhile, 10 Lebanese, including an Islamist supporter of the Syrian revolution, were charged with illegal arms trafficking between Lebanon and Syria.
Shadi Mawlawi was arrested last May only to be released 10 days later, after his detention triggered deadly clashes that killed 11 people in Tripoli.
Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr charged all 10 with “belonging to the armed group Nusra Front in order to carry out terrorist acts and transport weapons and explosives between Lebanon and Syria.” Judicial sources told The Daily Star that only one of the 10 accused was in custody.
The radical Nusra Front is a Syrian opposition brigade and has been labeled a terrorist group by the United States.
However, Mawlawi denied the charges and vowed not to surrender to the Lebanese judiciary, which he said he did trust.
“It seems that Judge Saqr had some linguistic confusion, whereby he did not differentiate between Ahl al-Nusra and the Nusra Front,” Mawlawi told The Daily Star in Tripoli. He said Ahl al-Nusra was a Lebanon-based group involved in helping Syrian refugees, “while the Nusra Front is a military movement inside Syria.”
However, Mawlawi said he was proud of supporting the Syrian uprising.
“Yes, Shadi Mawlawi is a supporter of the Syrian revolution but he does not participate in the fighting [in Syria],” he said.
He added that Lebanese security forces were watching his movements in Tripoli. “But they don’t dare arrest me because people will will not accept this, and will take to the streets,” Mawlawi said.
Elsewhere, the Lebanese Army arrested a Syrian soldier, identified as Hamadi Abed Hussein, for illegally entering Lebanon through a crossing in the Al-Qaa border area, the NNA reported.
Also Friday, four people were wounded in Tripoli by the explosion of a fuel tanker that was torched by gunmen overnight in an attempt to halt it from reaching Syria. Security sources told The Daily Star the wounded were all Lebanese nationals. – With additional reporting by Antoine Amrieh