Lebanese troops shelled militant positions in the mountains around the town of Ersal on the Syrian border on Monday, after 14 soldiers and dozens of Islamists were killed in three days of fierce fighting.
Another 86 soldiers were wounded and 22 remain missing, the army said in a statement, as Prime Minister Tammam Salam said there would be no political deal with the militants.
An AFP correspondent on the outskirts of the town said soldiers were firing mortar shells into the mountains and the sound of heavy machine gun fire could also be heard in the area.
Thick smoke rose from Ersal, reportedly after a petrol station in the town was set ablaze.
In the early hours of Monday morning, several hundred people fled the town during a lull in the fighting.
They packed into pickup trucks and cars to drive out of the region, where militants began fighting the Lebanese army on Saturday afternoon.
The clashes began after the arrest of a Syrian man accused of belonging to al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch al-Nusra Front, a claim the group denied on Twitter.
Following his arrest, gunmen surrounded army posts before opening fire, sparking clashes that have killed 14 soldiers, including two officers, and “dozens” of militants, a military source said Monday.
A source had earlier told Al-Akhbar that 16 troops were killed.
The source said one army post was under heavy attack by militants Monday and troop reinforcements struggling to reach it to counter the offensive.
“What happened is far more dangerous than some believe,” Lebanon’s army chief General Jean Kahwaji told reporters in Beirut, saying the arrested commander had admitted to planning a large attack against army positions.
“The terrorist attack which occurred yesterday was not an attack by chance or coincidence. It was planned previously, a long time ago, awaiting the appropriate time,” he said.
“They’re shelling from all directions,” said Qassem al-Zein, a Syrian doctor at the field hospital in Ersal, adding that the hospital had recorded 17 civilians killed so far, including refugees hit by the shelling. The wounded numbered 150, up to 15 of whom were militants, he said.
Among the dead are three children from the Hujeiri family, state media reported Monday.
The violence is the worst in the area since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
Ersal is hosting tens of thousands of refugees, and Kahwaji said Sunday that some of the gunmen had emerged from the informal refugee camps in the area.
In its first statement on the crisis, Hezbollah called the events in eastern Lebanon a “systematic terrorist attack” on the Lebanese army.
The organization 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.
Meanwhile Salam met with MP Jamal Jarrah, Tripoli salafi sheikh Salem al-Rifi’i, and Bekaa mufti Khalil al-Mais to work towards a ceasefire, a source told Al-Akhbar.
But the premier later on Monday said there would be no political deal with the militants.
“There are no political solutions with (the extremists) who are tampering with Arab societies under oppressive, alien religious slogans,” Salam said in a televised statement read at the end of a cabinet meeting.
“We stress that there will be no leniency towards the terrorist killers and no appeasement for those who violate Lebanon’s territory and harm its people,” the premier said.
Salam said the only solution was for the militants to withdraw from Ersal. The government had decided to mobilize all state institutions to defend the country, Salam — flanked by the entire cabinet — added.
Two rockets fired from Ersal landed in residential areas of Labwe and Nabi Othman, state media reported early Monday evening.
Salam also said his government had asked France “to speed up delivery of weapons agreed to as part of an armament deal funded by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
The prime minister was referring to a deal announced last year under which Saudi Arabia pledged $3 billion to buy military equipment from France for the Lebanese army.
Details of what will be purchased under the deal have not been made public.
Lebanese military vehicles have deployed around Ersal and shelled the area while Syrian warplanes have been bombing rebel positions in the town’s environs, residents say.
(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)