Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees crammed into cars and trucks to flee a town in eastern Lebanon yesterday as troops battled al-Qaeda-linked militants from neighbouring Syria who overran the border region in the most serious incursion into Lebanon of the three-year conflict.
The Lebanese army meanwhile announced that 22 soldiers were missing, possibly taken hostage, and a military source said 16 others had been killed in the fighting.
With army reinforcements arriving in Arsal, Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam, a Sunni Muslim, said there could be no "political solutions" with the Sunni radicals identified as members of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, which has seized parts of Syria and Iraq.
Lebanon, still rebuilding from its own 1975-1990 civil war, has been buffeted by violence linked to the Syrian conflict including rocket attacks, suicide bombings and gun battles.
But this was the first major incursion by hardline Sunni militants who have become leading players in clashes between Sunnis and Shiites that have unfolded across the region, destabilising Lebanon by inflaming its own sectarian tensions.
Thick plumes of black and grey smoke billowed from the hills where Arsal lies. Intermittent bursts of gunfire could be heard from the surrounding areas as troops moved in.
The Lebanese army yesterday deployed reinforcements and fired mortar rounds at militant positions around Arsal.
Residents fled after fierce fighting raged overnight. "We didn't sleep all night because of the fighting," said Ahmed Hujairi, 55, who left with his family. "The armed men are not letting anyone else leave. They fired over our heads to stop us," he added.
The gunmen were from different countries, dressed in black and were "very well-organised".
Salam pledged there would be "no leniency towards the terrorist killers and no appeasement for those who violate Lebanon's territory and harm its people".
In a statement after a cabinet meeting, he also urged France to speed up delivery of weapons for the Lebanese army being purchased under a US$3 billion deal financed by Saudi Arabia.
The UN refugee agency said it was making plans to deliver aid to Syrian and Lebanese civilians affected by the fighting if needed.
A UN official said there was scant information on the status of tens of thousands of refugees in Arsal, though there were reports shelling had started a fire at one tented encampment, prompting refugees to shelter in nearby buildings.
Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse