Sunday 21 January 2018

Soldiers killed by Lebanon car bomb

A Syrian government soldier takes up position during clashes with rebels (AP Photo)
A Syrian government soldier takes up position during clashes with rebels (AP Photo)

A suicide bomber in an explosives-laden car has targeted a Lebanese army checkpoint near the Syrian border, killing three soldiers.

The attack near the eastern border town of Arsal came after forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad routed rebels from two Syrian villages lying just across the border.

The bombing demonstrated how far the war in Syria has sucked in its fragile neighbour, igniting violent sectarian tensions between Sunni extremists in Lebanon against the country's Shiites, and ensnaring even the military.

Sunni extremists have accused Lebanon's military of being partial to their rivals, the Shiite group Hezbollah, whose fighters are waging war in Syria alongside Assad's forces.

The bomb killed three soldiers and wounded another four, a military statement said. Military helicopters were rushing to rescue the wounded from the rugged mountainous area, said the army statement.

The Ahrar al-Sunna in Baalbek Brigade, an extremist Sunni group, claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The group described the attack as a "heroic operation that targeted the crusader army in Arsal" in a message posted on Twitter.

The group said the bombing was to avenge the Lebanese army killing of a suspected militant during an arrest raid on Thursday, and for Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian conflict.

The Shiite group "should not think it will not be punished for killing innocents in Syria," one message read. "As long as Sunnis in Lebanon are targeted, be assured we will respond," said another.

The bombing shook windows in the town of Asral, less than a mile away, said deputy mayor Ahmad Fliti.

"People rushed outside to see what was happening, but the military closed off the area," he said.

The bombing came after assailants killed two Lebanese soldiers in the northern town of Tripoli last week, and tried to kill a third. There have been clashes between two Tripoli neighbourhoods, in fighting linked to the Syrian war.

At least 11 Lebanese soldiers have been killed in similar attacks since December.

Attacks against the army are seen as shocking in Lebanon, where the military is viewed as the sole institution that represents, and unifies, the country's squabbling sects. Despite hard-line Sunni anger against the army, Sunnis make up at least one-third of all military personnel.

Dozens more Lebanese civilians have been killed in bombings that have targeted mostly Shiite areas since last summer, also in retaliation for Hezbollah fighting in Syria.

The Iranian-backed Shiite group began waging war alongside Assad's forces last year, allowing Syrian forces to regain swathes of territory lost to armed rebels since the uprising began three years ago.

Hours before the bombing, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said his fighters would remain in Syria for now.

Speaking at a cultural event in south Lebanon, the black-turbaned cleric said Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon were defending Syria and their own country from the scourge of extremist Sunni groups.

"We have taken on this burden and are continuing with it," Nasrallah said in a speech broadcast from a secret location.

Today they captured two villages near the border with Lebanon, continuing a weeks-long advance that has cut a major supply route for weapons and fighters into the country from eastern Lebanon, said activists and state TV.

The villages of Flita and Ras Maara were the latest targets of a government offensive in the rugged Qalamoun border region after troops captured the town of Yabroud earlier this month.

Press Association

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