Beirut, Lebanon – Clashes between Syrian fighters and the Lebanese army continued for a third day in the northeast Lebanese town of Arsal, as many residents fled and others were caught in the violence and forced to stay behind.
At least 11 Lebanese soldiers were killed and 30 others wounded since clashes with gunmen in and around Arsal, near the border with Syria, first erupted on Saturday. About 50 Syrian rebel fighters, from various factions allied with the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front, and smaller units, such as Jaish al-Islam, were also killed.
“Most [people] are staying because we can’t leave our homes,” Arsal resident Merhi Fliti told Al Jazeera. The mayor of Labweh, a village neighbouring Arsal, said 3,000 people had been displaced to date, while local media reported that the Lebanese army escorted at least 50 families out of the town.
According to army sources, the initial fighting was restricted to Arsal’s five main border crossings, with the most intense clashes taking place by the Wadi Hmeid checkpoint. The clashes were thought to be spurred by the arrest of Imad Jomaa, a commander of the Islamist Fajr al-Islam Brigade, on Saturday.
The rebel fighters moved into the town and temporarily occupied Arsal’s vocational building, which was recovered by the military overnight, according to an army statement released on Sunday.
The ongoing clashes mark the worst spillover of violence into Lebanon since the start of the Syria crisis in 2011.
Jomaa’s brigade was heavily involved in battles against the Syrian regime in the strategic Qalamoun area. Jomaa fled to Qara, Wadi Zamrani and finally to Arsal, along with other rebel units, after losing successive battles, according to Free Syrian Army commander Bassel Idriss.
Idriss, who said he was acquainted with Jomaa, said that Jomaa pleged his alliance to the Islamic State group in June, shortly after the group made rapid advances in Iraq. Jomaa was believed to be a member of the Nusra Front, but the group posted on a Twitter account affiliated to the group on Sunday that he was not a member.
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The Lebanese government and those who knew Jomaa, also known as Abu Ahmad or Mahmoud, said his arrest was a pretext for the Syrian rebel groups to launch attacks.
In a rare press conference, Army Commander Jean Kahwagi said the attacks were “premeditated” because they were methodically planned. “This attack… was not an attack by chance or coincidence, it was planned a long time ago and awaited the right time, which came in the last 48 hours,” Kahwagi said.
Idriss, a commander of the FSA’s 77 Katiba battalion, also taking refuge in Arsal, agreed with the government’s assessment. “His arrest was incidental,” he said over the phone.
Idriss said Jomaa’s group was attempting to draw moderate Syrian opposition groups holed up near the border town into the fighting. “At this point, the secular factions are still in no-man’s land [between Lebanon and Syria] and we will not accept to be dragged into the fight,” he said, over the phone.
He said he believed the true purpose of the violence was to secure a safe haven in Arsal for the rebel groups to restock on supplies. Idriss added that most rebels who fled to Arsal’s outskirts after the fall of Yabroud in March consisted of fighters from the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. “Some were hiding in the refugee camps without the knowledge of refugees,” he said.
are roaming the streets… They [the army] are firing indiscriminately from afar.”]
According to Mario Abou Zeid, an expert with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, the threat of violence in Arsal increased after certain formerly Nusra Front battalions in the Qalamoun region joined the Islamic State. Both Nusra Front and Islamic State-affiliated groups are fighting in Arsal, he said, which points to “some kind of transitional phase [of] moving and shifting alliances”.
The army’s strategy from the onset of the violence seemed to consist of isolating the town and securing its entrances from both the Bekaa Valley and Syrian sides to stop the smuggling of weapons and fighters.
The army continued its shelling operation on fighters in Arsal’s al-Hosn neighbourhood on Monday, from their primary position along the town’s western borders. A ground military offensive was complicated by Arsal’s challenging mountainous terrain and the army has yet to enter the town, raising the anxieties of residents.
“[Rebel fighters] are roaming the streets,” Arsal resident Tareq Hujieri told Al Jazeera over the phone, adding that he hadn’t seen soldiers inside the town since Saturday. “They [the army] are firing indiscriminately from afar.”
“The locals are saying the situation is getting worse and won’t be resolved easily,” Hujieri added.
So far, the vast majority of casualties in Arsal have been Syrian refugees, according to Dr Kassem al-Zein, who runs a field hospital in the area. Arsal is currently hosting 40,000 refugees registered with the United Nations human rights agency (UNHCR).
By Sunday night, Zein had treated 52 patients with severe injuries, including dozens who required surgery, he said.
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“Most of these wounds were a result of bombs and grenades, no one has come in because he was shot by militants,” he said. However, late Sunday evening civilian Mohammed Qassem Fliti died after being shot in the head by militant fire.
Fifteen members of the Lebanese army and 16 members of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces were also taken hostage by fighters.
A video posted on a Youtube channel affiliated with the Nusra Front announced the alleged defection of ISF officers. The men were filmed sitting in a living room, reiterating the same message: “I announce my defection from the Lebanese army and Hezbollah because of their attacks on Arsal and inside Syrian territory.”
“We’re taking it seriously, but if someone has a gun to [their] head and is told to repeat something, everyone should understand that they are under pressure,” an Interior Ministry source told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.
“What’s going on in Arsal is terrible, but we have to take into account how complicated it is,” the official said, adding that it is difficult to distinguish between Syrian opposition fighters and Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Lebanese officials have condemned attacks on the army and traded accusations of blame.
In a statement, the Future Movement – led by Saad Hariri – blamed Lebanese armed group Hezbollah, saying Lebanon was facing the “scourges of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria”, while the latter called on all Lebanese to stop looking for justifications for the actions of extremist groups.