Two Lebanese soldiers were killed in fighting with Islamist militants overnight in the town of Ersal on the border with Syria and an eight-year-old girl was shot dead in clashes in a northern city, security sources said on Tuesday.
The fighting in Ersal in the north of the Bekaa Valley is the most serious spillover into Lebanon from Syria’s civil war since that conflict began more than three years ago.
The violence prompted army chief General Jean Kahwaji on Tuesday to call on France to speed up the delivery of weapons under a Saudi-financed deal.
“This battle requires equipment, materiel and technology that the army doesn’t have,” Kahwaji told AFP.
The clashes began on Saturday after security forces arrested an Islamist commander popular with local rebels who frequently use the porous border to move in and out of Syria. Shortly after the arrest, gunmen attacked security forces in the area.
At least 16 soldiers have been killed since. An unknown number of civilians and militants have also died in the fighting.
Militants on Tuesday also released three policemen who were among dozens of security force members believed to have been abducted.
Lebanon’s National News Agency the freed officers as Rami Jamal, Khaled Solh, and Tanios Murad.
Lebanese security officials say the fighters in Ersal include members of al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, al-Nusra Front, and an al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State, which has seized swathes of land in Syria and Iraq.
Fighting broke out on Monday night in Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli after news that three clerics, Sheikhs Salem Rafii, Jalal Kalash and Nabil Halabi, had been wounded as they entered Ersal to try to broker a ceasefire between the army and the militants. Men blocked several Tripoli roads on Tuesday, and most shops were closed and streets empty.
Tripoli has seen frequent fighting between rival fighters divided over the conflict in Syria.
On Tuesday, militants opened fire on a bus carrying soldiers in Tripoli, wounding seven, according to an army statement.
The statement said units had been deployed to go after the assailants.
Gunmen had also fired on several army positions throughout the port city overnight, the NNA said. A girl, identified as Mariam Lababidi, 8, was killed when a bullet hit her in the head, and a Syrian national was wounded.
The army blocked the Tripoli-Akkar highway and another road leading to the Baddawi refugee camp, and diverted traffic to the navy road following the attacks, an Al-Akhbar correspondent in Tripoli said.
Fighting also started again in Ersal around 7 am as the army tried to retake a number of buildings seized by militants, the NNA said.
Witnesses and medics in the town say fighting has badly damaged the camps that are home to many of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees estimated to live in and around the town.
Last December, Saudi Arabia agreed to finance a $3 billion deal to purchase military equipment and weapons from France for Lebanon’s army, which has long complained of being sorely under-equipped.
And in mid-June, at an international conference in Rome, the international community pledged its backing for the Lebanese military.
But talks on the list of material to be furnished to the army under the Saudi-French deal have yet to be finalized.
The recent uptick in violence on Lebanon’s eastern border prompted a number of security raids across the country.
On Tuesday, the NNA reported that the Internal Security Forces (ISF) raided a number of complexes housing Syrian refugees in the southern city of Sidon.
That raid came one day after security forces searched a housing complex in the southern town of Kfarjour in the Nabatiyeh district.
Rocket fire, suicide attacks and gun battles connected to Syria’s war have plagued Lebanon, and the conflict has worsened Lebanon’s perennial political deadlock between officials divided largely along sectarian lines.
(Reuters, Al-Akhbar, AFP)