OUTSKIRTS OF ARSAL, Lebanon: The Lebanese army advanced yesterday 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 deal with gunmen identified as members of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, which has seized parts of Syria and Iraq.
“The only solution proposed today is the withdrawal of the militants from Arsal and its environs,” said Salam, the most senior Sunni in the 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 hardline Sunni militants who have become leading players in Sunni-Shia violence that has unfolded across the Levant, destabilising Lebanon by inflaming its own sectarian tensions.
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.
Soldiers advancing into Arsal found the bodies of 50 militants, a security official said. A cleric in Arsal said at least 50 civilians were dead and more were buried in rubble.
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.
Rebels said dozens of fighters from Syria’s Qalamoun area just across the border had moved to Arsal on Sunday to reinforce gunmen there. Syrian warplanes repeatedly struck the nearby mountainous border area used by the militants to access Arsal.
The militants have been beaten back in the border area in the past year by Syrian government forces backed by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shis political and military movement. Some 3,000 fighters are estimated to be in the border zone.
Indicating that Iranian-backed Hezbollah stood ready to help the army, one of its senior clerics said the military would not be left on its own and urged people in areas near the clashes to be prepared to “confront the bats of the dark night”.