Lebanon: No negotiation with ‘takfiri’ intruders
Lebanon: The Lebanese army advanced on Monday into a border town attacked by Islamists at the weekend in the most serious spillover of the three-year-old Syrian civil war into Lebanon, and the Beirut government said the deadly assault would not go unpunished.
With army reinforcements arriving in Arsal, Prime Minister Tammam Salam, a Sunni Muslim, said there could be no “political solutions” with the Sunni radicals identified as members of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, which has seized wide areas of Syria and Iraq.
“We stress that there will be no leniency toward the terrorist killers and no appeasement for those who violate Lebanon’s territory and harm its people,” the premier said. “There can be no political solutions with takfiris (extremists).”
“The only solution proposed today is the withdrawal of the militants from Arsal and its environs,” said Salam, the most senior Sunni in Lebanese government.
Flanked by the rest of the Cabinet, Salam accused the militants of seeking to “move their sick practices to Lebanon.”
“We confirm that the attack on Lebanese national dignity will not go unpunished,” he said.
Lebanon, still rebuilding from its own 1975-1990 civil war, has been buffeted by violence linked to the Syrian conflict including rocket attacks, suicide bombings and gun battles.
But this was the first major incursion by hard-line Sunni militants who have become leading players in Sunni-Shiite violence that has unfolded across the Levant, destabilising Lebanon by inflaming its own sectarian tensions.
Soldiers advancing into Arsal found the bodies of 50 militants, a Lebanese security official said. The army said 14 soldiers had been killed, with 22 others missing and 86 injured in the fighting which erupted after security forces arrested a Syrian Islamist rebel commander, Emad Jumaa, on Saturday.
More than a dozen other members of the security forces have been taken hostage. The army described the Islamists’ incursion as a long-planned attack. Local politicians say it marks an attempt to extend the Islamic State’s footprint into Lebanon.
The militants have been beaten back in the border area in the past year by Syrian government forces backed by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim political and military movement. Some 3,000 fighters are estimated to be in the border zone.
Thick plumes of black and grey smoke billowed from the tops of the hills where Arsal lies. Intermittent bursts of gunfire could be heard from the surrounding areas as troops moved in.
A dozen armored personnel carriers were seen advancing toward the town, together with a similar number of other military vehicles including trucks and Humvees. Soldiers armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades sat atop the vehicles as they moved along the main road toward Arsal.
In a statement, the army said it had taken full control of a school that militants had seized during the incursion.
Arsal is a mainly Sunni town located on the Lebanese side of the border between Syrian government-controlled territory and Lebanese Shiite areas sympathetic to Hezbollah.
More than 100,000 Syrian refugees are estimated to be living in and around Arsal. Syrian activists in the area say refugee camps have been heavily damaged during the fighting.
“The humanitarian situation is very bad. There is no place of refuge for the refugees,” said one Syrian activist in the area reached by text message. “The residents are terrified.”
A Syrian doctor in Arsal said on Sunday that 17 civilians had been killed.
Two army trucks were seen bringing several dozen civilians including women in headscarves and young children out of Arsal.
“What are we expecting? Our houses are being destroyed. God knows if our families are alive and well or dying,” said Mohamed Al-Fleti, a 25-year-old Lebanese man from Arsal as he sat in the shade of a tree by a gas station down the road from Arsal.
The war in Syria has deepened rifts between Shiite Lebanese allied to the Assad government and Sunnis who have mostly been supportive of the uprising against him. Political divisions have left the country without a president since May.
Salam said the government drawn from across the political spectrum stood behind the army. He said he had asked France to speed the delivery of weapons under in a Saudi-financed deal.
“The government has decided to mobilize all official Lebanese institutions and apparatus to defend our country.”
Lebanon’s most influential Sunni politician, former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri, said Arsal must be “liberated” from the militants who he said must leave the town.
“They have no choice but to withdraw from the town and neither the state, nor we, will stand idle in the face of the plots of these groups,” Hariri, who is backed by Saudi Arabia, said in comments to the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.
Shoulder to shoulder
Hezbollah, which is sponsored by Iran, said on Sunday that it stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the military as it confronted what it said was a threat to the “unity, sovereignty and stability” of Lebanon.
Its forces are deployed in the area near Arsal, and Syrian activists have said Hezbollah has been involved in the fighting, though the group has not announced any role. Analysts said Hezbollah would keep quiet about any involvement to avoid further imflaming sectarian tensions.
The Syrian government condemned the “terrorist attacks and crimes against civilians and
Lebanese army positions,” adding that the Lebanese army must be supported in “its battle against extremist terrorism,” the state news agency SANA reported.
The Saudi ambassador in Beirut said he had expressed “sorrow” at events and urged Lebanese show unity to “safeguard Lebanon’s stability, integrity and sovereignty” during a meeting with Lebanon’s parliament speaker, Nabih Berri.