Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Hundreds flee Ersal in Lebanon after attack by Islamists
Lebanese army and ambulances at the entrance of Ersal. (Photo AP)
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. The violence is the worst in the area since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
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. In the early hours of Monday morning, several hundred people fled the town during a lull in the fighting.
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 killed 14 soldiers, including two officers, and "dozens" of militants.
"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.
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.
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. 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.
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.