Lebanon truce falters, Saudi gives $1bn to army
Arsal, Lebanon, August 6, 2014
Lebanon's army and Islamist militants clashed on Wednesday in breach of a ceasefire aimed at ending five days of fighting in the most serious spillover of Syria's civil war onto Lebanese soil.
Saudi Arabian King Abdullah granted $1 billion to help the Lebanese army to bolster security as they battle militants who have seized the border town of Arsal on the Syrian frontier, state news agency SPA reported.
Machine gun fire and shelling broke out on Wednesday on the outskirts of the town in breach of the 24-hour truce, which came into force at 7 pm (1600 GMT) on Tuesday.
Dozens of armoured-personnel carriers and tanks were seen on the road heading towards the Arsal area. Lebanese special forces were also being deployed on Wednesday, arriving at the town of Labwa near Arsal where hundreds of soldiers are stationed.
"The ceasefire is continuing, but we are responding to any violations," a security official said.
Ambulances were seen exiting from the last army checkpoint before Arsal. Around 30 prisoners with their hands tied behind their backs were driven out of Arsal by the army in a truck. The majority were young men and many were wearing red kaffiyeh scarves on their heads.
A security official and a doctor in Arsal said many militants had now fled Arsal for surrounding mountains following the army bombardment.
Arsal is the first major incursion into Lebanon by hardline Sunni militants - leading players in Sunni-Shi'ite violence unfolding across the Levant - which threatens the stability of Lebanon by inflaming its own sectarian tensions.
While Lebanon has officially tried to distance itself from Syria's conflict, the country's powerful Shi'ite movement, Hezbollah, has sent fighters to aid President Bashar al-Assad. Assad, like Hezbollah, is backed by Shi'ite power Iran, Saudi Arabia's rival in the Gulf.
At least 17 soldiers have been killed and 22 are missing from the violence in and around Arsal. Reports from inside the town suggest scores of people have been killed there.
Advancing Lebanese troops found the bodies of 50 gunmen on Monday, security sources said.
Arsal's mayor Ali Hujeiri, speaking by phone, said the gunmen were on the outskirts of the town. "There was a ceasefire, but it is not being implemented," he said, adding that there appeared to be more militants in the area.
"The army is still there, the gunmen are still there, and the ones suffering are the civilians."
FIRST STOP FOR REFUGEES
The militants have been identified by officials as members of the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's branch in Syria, and of the Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria.
Rebel sources told Reuters several members of the Islamic State had been killed in the Arsal fighting, including senior leader Abu Hassan al-Homsi, who had been in charge of setting up booby traps and explosions. Another leader of Jordanian origin was also killed in the fighting, the rebel sources said.
Local officials in Arsal said is was completely surrounded by the army apart from a corridor apparently left for gunmen who want to retreat.
Arsal was the first stop for many civilians fleeing the bloodshed in Syria. Refugee camps in Arsal that provide shelter to tens of thousands of Syrians who fled the war have been badly damaged in the fighting, forcing refugees to seek shelter in the town itself, Syrian activists in the area have said.
Saudi news agency SPA said former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, who has close links to the Saudi royal family, announced the Saudi aid after meeting King Abdullah in his summer residence in the Red Sea city of Jeddah late on Tuesday.
The king "has issued an order to provide aid to the Lebanese army and the national security (forces) to the value of $1 billion to support their ability to maintain the security and stability of Saudi Arabia's sister country, Lebanon", said Hariri, cited by SPA.
Lebanon - a country of about 4 million, bordering Israel - has avoided the kind of war afflicting Syria and Iraq, but regional conflicts have rekindled decades-old tensions. - Reuters