Ten soldiers killed as Syrian rebels attack Lebanon
LEBANESE soldiers traded fire with Islamist gunmen and shelled areas around the border town of Arsal yesterday.
The troops are aiming to roll back the biggest incursion by militants into Lebanon since Syria's civil war began.
At least 10 Lebanese soldiers have died in the fighting, which erupted after Islamists seized a police station following the arrest of one of their leaders on Saturday - an attack that army chief General Jean Kahwaji said was premeditated.
"What happened is far more dangerous than some believe," Kahwaji told reporters in Beirut, saying the arrested commander had admitted to planning a large attack against army positions.
"The terrorist attack which occurred yesterday was not an attack by chance or coincidence. It was planned previously, a long time ago, awaiting the appropriate time," he said.
An unknown number of militants and civilians, possibly dozens, were also killed in the fighting. More than a dozen members of Lebanon's security forces were taken captive.
Security officials say the gunmen in Arsal include fighters linked to the Islamic State, as well as Syria's al-Qa'ida branch, the Nusra Front. Bombardment of the area prompted a large number of the tens of thousands of refugees sheltering in the region to flee, residents said.
Television images showed plumes of black smoke rising from the mountainous area around the town.
"They're shelling from all directions," said Qassem Al-Zein, a doctor at the field hospital in Arsal, adding that the hospital had recorded 10 civilians killed so far, including refugees hit by the shelling.
Lebanon has struggled with the shock waves of Syria's three-year-old conflict, whose sectarian dimensions echo those of its own 1975-90 civil war.
Suicide attacks, car bombs, gun battles, kidnappings and rocket fire have plagued Lebanon, but the confrontation in Arsal has been the biggest clash between its army and rebels fighting to overthrow Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
Lebanon's militant Shi'ite group Hezbollah had deployed its fighters around Arsal, a Sunni town sandwiched between Syrian government-controlled territory and Lebanese Shi'ite areas sympathetic to the group.