BEIRUT/ BAALBECK, Lebanon: Mayor Bassel Hujeiri of east Lebanon’s Arsal Wednesday called for militants entrenched on the town’s outskirts on the border with Syria to withdraw from Lebanese territory.
Hujeiri released a statement addressing Arsal residents, the Lebanese Army, Syrian refugees encamped in the area and militant groups on Arsal’s outskirts.
Militants belonging to Daesh (ISIS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham - formerly known as the Nusra Front - are entrenched in the mountainous region near Arsal.
The area, however, is not clearly demarcated amid border disputes between the Lebanese and Syrian governments.
“We demand you take a bold and daring stance by withdrawing to Syrian territories to spare [us] bloodshed and to avert [risks] of losses [among] people in a disproportionate battle,” Hujeiri said.
Syrian air strikes regularly target militants in the border area, which is also consistently bombarded by Lebanese Army units in an attempt to keep the militants from advancing closer to Arsal, which was briefly overrun by extremists in August 2014.
As a result of that incident, Daesh and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham captured a number of Lebanese soldiers and policemen in the worst spillover of the Syrian war to date.
Nine soldiers are still believed to be held captive by Daesh.
“You [militants] severely wronged Arsal in August 2014, and we are still paying for it [through to] today,” Hujeiri said, addressing the militants, urging them to “free the remaining Lebanese servicemen.” “This mistake should not be repeated,” he added.
The statement comes after Hezbollah senior officials have signaled that the party will launch a military operation to liberate the Arsal outskirts from militant groups.
Syrian warplanes have recently intensified the frequency of their strikes against militant posts in the Qalamoun mountains area on the Syrian western border with Lebanon.
Hujeiri also said the militants’ withdrawal will emancipate the Syrian civilians from “their calamity” and relieve the town of Arsal from “a bitter situation.”
Hujeiri also pleaded “patience, steadfastness and wisdom” from the Lebanese citizens of Arsal. “We must not leave, take risks or gamble,” Hujeiri said, adding that Arsal locals should “denounce sedition.”
A source told The Daily Star that despite the border tensions and the arrest of two terror suspects Tuesday, the situation in Arsal “remains stable and calm.”
Hujeiri also saluted young men who “volunteered to defend” the town, urging locals to “support them” and stand by their sides.
He also pledged support to the Lebanese Army and thanked “its sacrifices in Arsal.”
“What some people see as a siege on Arsal, we see as a shield that has protected Arsal for years.”
Army checkpoints at the entrance to Arsal enforce tight security measures on travel in and out of the town.
Addressing Syrian refugees living in the encampments, Hujeiri said the town would continue to embrace the refugee community, saying, “we never ask our guests to leave.”
Several political parties have been recently lobbying for the repatriation of Syrian refugees to safe zones in Syria. A number of refugee families in Arsal have returned to areas recently recaptured by the Syrian regime in the neighboring Qalamoun mountains.
“We thank you for your efforts to raise awareness among your children and promote the idea of refraining from conducting any acts against the Lebanese Army,” Hujeiri said to the refugees in his statement.
He also added that, in case of any emergency, the refugees must “remain in their tents and homes,” promising to ensure their safety.