HERMEL, Lebanon: Lebanese officials from across the political spectrum condemned the killing of three Army soldiers at a checkpoint in Arsal at dawn Tuesday, the second attack targeting the Army in the border town this year.
Security sources told The Daily Star that unidentified gunmen opened fire at a military checkpoint in Wadi Hmeid – the northern entrance to Arsal – at around 3:30 a.m., killing three soldiers of the Army’s 6th battalion.
“A group of gunmen in a black [SUV] attacked a military checkpoint in Wadi Hmeid at 3:30 a.m.,” the military said in a statement. The three soldiers were killed in the clash that followed the attack, it added.
The Army identified the fatalities as soldier Mohammad Radwan Sharafeddine, 26, from Akkar, north Lebanon, and conscripts Mustafa Khaled al-Hayek, 23, from Dinnieh, north Lebanon, and Ali Adnan Monzer, 21, from the Bekaa Valley. The three were laid to rest in their respective villages later Tuesday.
President Michel Sleiman said the killings were part of a “series of terrorist and criminal acts that sought to provoke strife in the country and [target] soldiers who are working to prevent it,” in a statement from his office.
He offered his condolences to Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi, who visited him in Baabda Palace to discuss the incident. “He [Kahwagi] urged that an iron fist be used against anyone targeting the Army or the security services ... or [anyone] seeking to sow strife,” Sleiman said.
All three soldiers died of various gunshot wounds to the head, chest and stomach, a physician at the Universal Hospital in Ras Baalbek told The Daily Star.Some local media reported that the soldiers were brutally beaten before they were shot. However, security sources denied the reports.
They said soldiers manning the checkpoint responded to the attack, damaging the windshield of the black Hummer the gunmen were driving. They said the vehicle had no license plates. The armed group managed to escape, crossing the border into the Syrian village of Qarrah, the sources added.
The sources said checkpoints in Wadi Hmeid operated by the Army and the Internal Security Forces had been attacked on more than one occasion in the past two years, as the area is a known route for arms-smuggling into Syria. The sources said smugglers did not want authorities in the area in order to facilitate their work.
The Army has nine posts in the area, the sources said, adding that the soldiers operating them were numerous and well-equipped. The attacked checkpoint was controlled by the ISF before the Army took over to crack down on arms smuggling.
The Army said in a statement that a thorough search was under way in Arsal for the gunmen “who fled to the barren mountains nearby.”
Tuesday’s attack was the second to target the border town this year.
In February, gunmen ambushed an Army patrol in Arsal, killing Capt. Pierre Bashaalani, 31, and Sgt. Ibrahim Zahraman, 32.
Deputy Mayor of Arsal Ahmad al-Fliti condemned Tuesday’s incident, telling The Daily Star it was “an attack on every Lebanese,” and added: “There are many questions about the circumstances leading up to the attack.”
Schools across Arsal closed Tuesday to protest the killings.
Military Prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr tasked the Army Intelligence Directorate and Military Police with carrying out a preliminary investigation and examining the scene of the attack. He also asked a forensics team to inspect the area and ordered coroners to examine the bodies of the dead soldiers.
The attack was condemned by rival Lebanese politicians.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri extended his condolences to Kahwagi by telephone and condemned the crime in a statement. “This ugly crime ... indicates that national peace will be subject to more danger, which requires that all political groups exercise awareness and wisdom,” he said, highlighting the need to take strict measures against the assault.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the assault would not prevent the Army from preserving Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence.
“We affirm again the decisions of the Cabinet and the Higher Defense Council to give the Army the power to take measures it deems suitable,” Mikati said.
Hezbollah condemned the killing of the soldiers as well. “Hezbollah confirms full solidarity with the military institution and regards the repeated attacks against it ... a great danger that damages the state’s prestige and the security of the entire nation,” the party said in a statement.
Separately, several rockets from Syria struck the city of Hermel Tuesday for a second consecutive day, wounding five people, security sources said.
Three rockets launched from Syria hit residential areas. Abdeh Roumman was seriously wounded in the attack while a woman and her 5-month-baby girl were also injured. Four more rockets hit the city at around 4 p.m. Two rockets fell in the neighborhood of Dora, wounding Wafiq Qataya and Ali Jawhari. Two others crashed into the center of the city, leaving no casualties.
A 14-year-old girl, Loulou Awwad, was killed Monday when a rocket hit her parent’s house in Hermel. The funeral of Awwad, an only child, was held in the city Tuesday afternoon.
“We are fed up with these aggressions against the innocent,” said Abdullah Awwad, Loulou’s father. “We are under the state’s law and we want its authority to apply across Lebanon.”
The deteriorating security situation forced Hermel residents to close their shops. Schools were also closed and the streets were deserted.
Baalbek-Hermel MP Ghazi Zeaiter told a TV station he believed rockets that targeted Hermel Tuesday were launched from inside Lebanon.
“The Army can fulfill its duties [in preventing the rocket attacks] if it was given its full powers,” Zeaiter said.
On previous occasions, Syrian rebels claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks against Hermel, saying they were responding to Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Salim Idriss, the commander of the Syrian rebel forces, Tuesday gave Lebanon’s president, the U.N. and Arab League 24 hours to force Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria, warning the rebels would target the party’s fighters wherever they were.
“I tell Lebanese President [Michel Sleiman], Arab League chief [Nabil Elaraby] and U.N. Secretary General [Ban Ki-moon] that if Hezbollah’s attack against Syrian territories does not stop within 24 hours, then we will escalate measures and find Hezbollah, even in hell,” Idriss told Al-Arabiya TV.