Clashes erupt between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda-linked militants in northeast Lebanon

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 July, 2017, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 July, 2017, 12:48pm

Heavy clashes erupted late Thursday between the pro-Iranian Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement and militants on the outskirts of the northeastern border town of Arsal, a Lebanese security source said.

A source close to the movement said Hezbollah managed to take control of three observation points for al-Qaeda Syria affiliate Fatah al-Sham, previously known as the Nusra front, in Wadi al Ouwani at the outskirts of Arsal.

Syrian regime planes were also conducting heavy raids on the area of the clashes where the militants are entrenched, the source said.

Earlier, Hezbollah heavily shelled the area.

“Shells are raining down on militant posts who belong to the al-Qaeda- linked Fatah al-Sham, previously known as al Nusra Front, and others who belong to the Islamic State,” the source said.

The shelling is concentrated on the outskirts of Flita, an area in Syria but close to the Lebanese-Syrian border and Wadi al-Kheil on Arsal’s outskirts, where the Fatah al-Sham Front has positions.

“This might be a preliminary shelling for the long-anticipated military operation by Hezbollah to root out the militant groups from the outskirts of Arsal,” a source close to the Hezbollah movement said earlier.

“Hezbollah militants are ready for the anticipated battle,” he said without elaborating.

Activists in the area meanwhile said Syrian warplanes also carried out a round of raids on the militants’ posts in the border region.

Hezbollah has been fighting alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the uprising started in 2011.

A resident in the Northern Bekaa region said that the sounds of Hezbollah artillery shelling were echoing clearly across the region.

They added that the Lebanese Red Cross has started setting up field centres in the northern Bekaa region in anticipation for the anticipated big battle.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese army reinforced its outposts in anticipation of any responses from the militants against army posts in Arsal or the northern Bekaa region.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the militants are holed up in areas on Arsal’s outskirts and “some pockets” at the Syrian-Lebanese borders.

According to a Lebanese military expert, who requested anonymity, the battle will not be an easy ride for Hezbollah due to the nature of the terrain.

Arsal is surrounded by hills and deep valleys, and fighters are positioned on the hilltops and have a clear view of any advancing force, he added.

There are between 250 and 400 fighters from the Islamic State and Fatah al-Sham, as well as some 800 of Saraya Ahl al-Sham — a group loyal to the Free Syrian Army, who are entrenched on the outskirts of Arsal and other areas along the Lebanese-Syrian border.

On July 11, Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned jihadist militants and said that “it’s about time we put an end to the threat of the militant groups in Arsal’s outskirts.”

The Mayor of Arsal, Bassel al Hujeiri, said by phone that “the situation is not good and people inside the town are afraid and worried about the uncertainty of the situation in the area.”

Arsal was the site of fierce clashes between opposition Syrian militants and the Lebanese army in August 2014 when militants belonging to the Islamic State and Fatah al-Sham briefly overran the town.

The militants managed to kidnap around 30 Lebanese servicemen in the incident and nine are still in Islamic State captivity.