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Alex Rowell

Arsal civilians trapped between shells and snipers

NOW talks to Arsal residents caught in theater involving Lebanese army, Hezbollah, and militants

A Lebanese army

As clashes rage Monday for the third day running between foreign Islamist militants and the Lebanese army – reportedly in cooperation with Hezbollah – in the remote eastern border town of Arsal, the more than 80,000-strong population, which includes over 40,000 registered Syrian refugees, is caught in a deadly trap in the middle, between the militants’ guns on the one hand and intense barrages of incoming artillery on the other.

 

“Armed people were everywhere,” said Khaled Hojairi, a Lebanese Arsal resident who managed to flee the town at 2pm Sunday. “I saw them shooting randomly. I had to be very careful to avoid being shot,” he told NOW.

 

“Yesterday, [militants] tried to target an army position close to my house,” said Abu Muhammad*, another Arsal native who spoke to NOW via telephone. “I helped the soldiers to escape by hosting them in my house for a while.” As a result, a “direct armed confrontation” ensued between the militants and local residents who took up arms to repel them.

 

Hours later, Abu Muhammad said his home “was [hit] by heavy weapons, the kind that only the Lebanese army and Hezbollah have […] Arsal is now being bombed randomly, all the houses are being targeted equally without differentiating between one and another.”

 

Along with more than a thousand other Lebanese – but not Syrians, who have reportedly been forbidden to leave – Abu Muhammad was able to flee Arsal during a temporary calm on Monday morning.

 

The vast majority of residents, however, were not so fortunate, and the sealing of the only road in and out of the town later Monday morning forced them to remain stuck in the middle, under fire from all sides.

 

“The civilians are trapped, because they can’t go in or out,” said Carol Malouf, a journalist and activist who runs a Syrian refugee camp in Wadi Hmayed, the barren, mountainous region just east of Arsal where the militants – thought to be affiliated with the Islamic State (formerly Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) and Jabhat al-Nusra factions – triggered the battle Saturday by ambushing a Lebanese army checkpoint, killing two soldiers.

 

“When [civilians] try to leave, there are a lot of snipers shooting at them,” Malouf told NOW. At the same time, “there has been a lot of indiscriminate shelling. Our camp in Wadi Hmayyed was hit and several tents were on fire yesterday.” A temporary truce effected at 21:00 on Sunday enabled the transfer of most of the camp residents to Arsal town center, but Malouf says they remain in significant danger there.

 

“The militants have checkpoints in [Arsal] itself and at its entrance,” she told NOW. “If [civilians] stay, there is fear they will be taken as human shields by the militants.”

 

Conditions are even worse for the scores of injured civilians who, according to Abu Muhammad, are being treated on the floors of overwhelmed local medical facilities, unable – due to the closed road – to be taken to hospitals in the nearby Beqaa Valley.

 

“It’s really bad, and we really need to focus on getting the civilians out,” said Malouf.

 

To that end, a ceasefire was ostensibly agreed upon Monday evening, supposed to come into effect at 18:00, to enable a delegation of the Association of Muslim Scholars to enter the town and negotiate the evacuation of injured civilians, the release of Lebanese soldiers held by the gunmen, and the latter’s withdrawal from Lebanon, according to Nabil al-Halabi, a member of the delegation who spoke to NOW moments after it had been agreed. The latest official information from the Lebanese army is that 14 soldiers have been killed and 86 wounded, while 22 are unaccounted for (many presumed held by the militants).

 

The ceasefire had not, however, come into effect at the time of writing, and was in any case not expected to be a lasting one. More army units were seen heading into Arsal and firing artillery just minutes before the ceasefire’s appointed time, and Prime Minister Tammam Salam declared in a statement not long before then that there would be no “leniency, truce or political solution” with the “murderous terrorists.”

 

Indeed, there are signs the military’s operation could expand significantly. In what appeared to be a corroboration of multiple reports of Hezbollah’s involvement in the shelling of the town, the head of the party’s religious council, Sheikh Muhammad Yazbek, said Monday “we will not leave the army [to fight] alone,” pledging to “defend [against the militants] with all the power in our hands.”

 

And, shortly after a Twitter account called “Arsal News Network” reported the presence of Syrian regime MiG fighter jets above Arsal Monday afternoon, the National News Agency reported a “series” of Syrian air strikes on “positions of gunmen along the Lebanese-Syrian border.”

 

Such developments would in fact be consistent with an assertion by the mayor of the nearby town of Labwe last Wednesday that the Lebanese army, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime would soon commence a joint “operation” to “put an end to terrorism along the border.” If so, the political consequences of such open cooperation between the Lebanese army and these controversial, polarizing actors could be far-reaching.

 

“If Arsal is being bombed by the Lebanese army, this is a problem,” said Abu Muhammad.

 

“And if it is being bombed by Hezbollah while the Lebanese army is doing nothing about it, this is a

bigger problem.”

 

*NB: Citing fears for his and his family’s security, the source asked to be referred to by a pseudonym.

 

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

The only road into Arsal has been blocked, sources say. (AFP Photo/STR)

“The militants have checkpoints in [Arsal] itself and at its entrance. If [civilians] stay, there is fear they will be taken as human shields by the militants.”