Thursday 22 March 2018

Syria rebels kill Lebanese troops

Lebanese army soldiers stand guard as ambulances wait at the entrance of Arsal, a Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border, in eastern Lebanon (AP)
Lebanese army soldiers stand guard as ambulances wait at the entrance of Arsal, a Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border, in eastern Lebanon (AP)
Gunmen drive away with about a dozen men, two in camouflage police uniforms, in Arsal, a Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon (AP)

Syrian rebels have killed 10 Lebanese troops and likely captured over a dozen more in an ongoing raid on a Lebanese border town, the country's military chief said.

It is the most serious spillover of violence yet into the tiny country from its neighbour's civil war.

The capture raised fears Lebanon could become further entangled in the Syrian civil war and could worsen already-brewing sectarian tensions.

"What happened today is more serious than what some people imagine," Lebanon's army chief, General Jean Kahwaji, said.

As clashes raged today some residents tried to flee from the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, home to 40,000 residents and 120,000 Syrian refugees.

The fighting began yesterday as Syrian rebels made a cross-border raid into Arsal, some 55 miles (90m) from the capital, Beirut. The clashes continued today around the municipal building and an army checkpoint, Lebanon's state news agency reported. Local television footage showing wailing ambulances racing into town and soldiers standing guard just outside its limits.

The raid began hours after the army said troops detained Syrian Imad Ahmad Jomaa, who identified himself as a member of the Nusra Front. The state-run National News Agency said Jomaa was detained as he was being brought to a hospital in Lebanon after being wounded while fighting Syrian troops.

The Nusra Front is one of the most powerful groups fighting to overthrow the rule of Syrian president Bashar Assad.

The rebels began the attack by seizing three security compounds in Arsal, Gen Kahwaji said.

The army chief said the fighters belonged to extremist Sunni groups, like the Nusra Front. He said the fighting had killed 10 soldiers, while 13 others were missing.

"They may be prisoners of terrorist groups," he said.

A video uploaded to an account associated with the Nusra Front showed over a dozen captured Lebanese soldiers and police officers. In the video, the men announced their defections from the Lebanese army and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, whose forces are fighting in Syria in support of Assad.

The video of the men's capture appeared authentic and corresponded with Associated Press reporting on the attack in Arsal. But the men appeared uncomfortable as they repeated similar statements as many refused to look at the camera.

A trickle of vehicles packed with residents fled the town as fighting continued. Thousands more were stuck, said Mohammed Ezeldeen, who fled to Beirut with a car packed with 15 people.

"Between the shelling and shelling, there's shelling," Mr Ezeldeen said. "People can't leave because there's clashes around the main checkpoint."

Deputy Mayor Ahmad Fliti said rebels killed three civilians when residents rushed to defend the town's police station. Arsal resident Mr Ezeldeen said he heard a similar account.

The deputy mayor said another seven Syrian refugees were killed after a shell slammed into the tent encampment. United Nations officials, who oversee Syrian refugees in Lebanon, did not respond to requests for comment. Mr Fliti called on the UN to ensure "a humanitarian corridor" into Arsal.

Syria's civil war has spilled over into Lebanon on multiple occasions, and inflamed sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, leaving scores dead. However, previous rebel raids never went so deeply into Lebanese territory. Rebels also directly challenged Lebanese security forces for the first time in their assault on Arsal.

Lebanon's Sunni and Shiite communities have lined up on opposing side of Syria's civil war. Sunnis, including those in Arsal, broadly support the Sunni rebels fighting against Assad. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live in and around Arsal and rebels sometimes use the town as a base. Shiites typically back Assad.

Gen Kahwaji said the future security problems caused by Syria's war threatened Lebanon, particularly the existence of extremists among the more than one million Syrian refugees who have fled into Lebanon.

Syria's conflict began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad's rule, but turned into an insurgency after government forces violently cracked down on demonstrators.

It has since become civil war with sectarian overtones.

More than 170,000 people, mostly combatants, have been killed in Syria in more than three years of fighting, activists say.

Press Association

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