BEIRUT: ISIS militants attacked four Hezbollah posts on the outskirts of the northeastern border town of Ras Baalbek Tuesday in a failed bid to capture two hills, sparking intense clashes that left at least 22 people dead, a security source said.
A separate security source told The Daily Star that Lebanese Army helicopters carried out two airstrikes on militant positions around the same area. It was unclear if the Army coordinated the attacks with Hezbollah.
A source close to Hezbollah said eight party fighters and 14 jihadis were killed in the initial attack and ensuing clashes.
Hezbollah-run Al-Manar, which does not report casualties among its ranks, said Hezbollah thwarted the attacks on its posts, located about 14 kilometers east of Ras Baalbek's residential areas.
Al-Manar later reported that Hezbollah fighters shelled a gathering of ISIS militants on Arsal's eastern outskirts, killing the group's "most notable leader in Qalamoun," identified as Saudi national Walid Abdel-Mohsen al-Omari. The report added that four other ISIS militants were killed in the shelling, including two men from Syria's Homs and two brothers whose nationalities were not clear.
Ras Baalbek is situated about 7 kilometers north of Arsal, another restive northeastern border town whose outskirts have witnessed intense clashes between Hezbollah and the Nusra Front.
Al-Manar said ISIS aimed to take two strategic hills controlled by Hezbollah. Jihadis from Syrian territory infiltrated Ras Baalbek's outskirts and orchestrated the attacks, the station's field correspondent explained.
The report added that Hezbollah destroyed five of the jihadi group’s military vehicles, several motorcycles and a bulldozer.
ISIS also lost one rocket launcher and one artillery battery during the clashes. Al-Manar said the fighting began to deescalate around 11 a.m., and became sporadic by noon.
Al-Manar said that Hezbollah fighters were hunting down ISIS militants on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek and Al-Qaa as the jihadis retreated from the area. Al-Qaa is about 9 kilometers northeast of Ras Baalbek.
Some of the ISIS casualties resulted from mines planted by Hezbollah on Ras Baalbek’s outskirts, the report added.
The militants failed to remove their dead from the area, Al-Manar said, noting that Hezbollah recovered 14 corpses.
A security source told The Daily Star that Army helicopters carried out two airstrikes in Wadi Rafeq, on Ras Baalbek's outskirts. The Army also targeted militant positions using heavy artillery and rocket fire.
The same source noted that the military deployed heavily along the border, particularly between Al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek.
Hezbollah and the Syrian army have been battling jihadis in Syria's Qalamoun mountain range along Lebanon’s eastern borders for more than one month.
The allied forces have achieved major field victories, taking 64 percent of the Qalamoun hills in less than 5 weeks, according to Al-Manar.
The TV station also reported Monday that 90 percent of Nusra Front positions in Qalamoun, including Arsal’s outskirts, have been seized by Hezbollah fighters.
ISIS has been in control of most of Arsal’s northern outskirts since last year, while Nusra has been in control of the eastern and southern outskirts.
For more than one week the Qalamoun battles have been focused on Arsal’s eastern and southern outskirts, and on the western outskirts of the Syrian town of Flita. Flita is roughly 23 kilometers southeast of Arsal.
Most of the outskirts of Flita are now under control of Hezbollah and the Syrian army, who seized key crossings linking Arsal to Flita Monday.
At least 39 Hezbollah fighters and 210 militants have been killed since the launch of the Qalamoun offensive on May 4, according to the source close to Hezbollah. The figures include the fighters on both sides killed in Tuesday's clashes near Ras Baalbek.