BEIRUT: Lebanon’s leading Sunni politician Saad Hariri returned from self-imposed exile Friday on a trip to bolster the country’s army after clashes with jihadists in the latest spillover from Syria’s war.
Hariri’s visit, his first since 2011, comes after open conflict between the army and jihadists on the border with Syria that has killed 17 troops and left 19 kidnapped.
Hours after his arrival, a military source said troops had begun entering the restive town of Arsal for the first time since the fighting erupted a week ago.
Hariri has said Saudi Arabia, one of his chief allies, had pledged $1bn to shore up the army and security forces against jihadists.
His return to Lebanon also underscores the seriousness of the clashes in the Arsal region in eastern Lebanon on the Syrian border.
Fighting that began there on August 1 has eased, and a military source said Friday night that the army has “started to enter” Arsal, setting up a checkpoint and advancing slowly.
But earlier, residents who tried to return to their homes were fired on by snipers and it remained unclear whether gunmen had withdrawn from the town.
Sunni clerics have mediated a truce under which the militants agreed to return to Syria and talks are continuing over the release of 17 policemen and 19 soldiers being held hostage.
The violence in Arsal is the worst in the border region since the Syrian war began in March 2011, and has raised further concerns about the effects of the conflict on Lebanon.
Despite Beirut’s effort to insulate itself from the war next door, the fighting has spilled over and stoked existing political and sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
Much of Lebanon’s Sunni community, including Hariri, supports the Sunni-dominated uprising against President Bashar Al Assad.