World Bulletin/News Desk
Lebanon's army surrounded a border town occupied by militants on Wednesday, arresting men and evacuating refugees as the most serious spillover of Syria's civil war onto Lebanese soil lurched into its fifth day.
A Syrian refugee brought out by troops from the hill town of Arsal said she had seen fighters' bodies lying in the streets.
"We saw death with our own eyes," said Mariam Seifeddin, a 35-year-old mother of nine, who said she had sheltered with about 50 others in a single room without food or water for three days amid intense fighting.
Machine gun fire and shelling broke out on Wednesday on the outskirts of the town in breach of the 24-hour truce, which came into force at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Tuesday.
Political sources said the army was not planning to immediately retake Arsal but to evacuate civilians. A security official and a doctor in Arsal said many militants had now fled for surrounding mountains following the army bombardment.
Arsal is the first major incursion into Lebanon by Sunni militants - leading players in Sunni-Shi'ite violence unfolding across the Levant - which threatens the stability of Lebanon by inflaming its own sectarian tensions.
Dozens of armoured-personnel carriers and tanks were seen on the road heading towards the area. Lebanese special forces were also being deployed on Wednesday, arriving at the nearby town of al-Labwa, where hundreds of soldiers are stationed.
Ambulances were seen exiting from the last army checkpoint before Arsal. Around 30 prisoners with their hands tied behind their backs were driven out of the town by the army in a truck. The majority were young men, many were wearing red kaffiyeh scarves on their heads.
At least 17 soldiers have been killed and more than 30 security forces are missing from the violence in and around Arsal. Reports from inside the town suggest dozens of civilians and militants have been killed.
Arsal's mayor Ali Hujeiri, speaking by phone, said the gunmen were on the outskirts of the town. "There was a ceasefire, but it is not being implemented," he said, adding that there appeared to be more militants in the area.
"The army is still there, the gunmen are still there, and the ones suffering are the civilians."
Rebel sources told Reuters several members of the Islamic State had been killed in the fighting, including senior leader Abu Hassan al-Homsi.
The town was the first stop for many civilians fleeing the bloodshed in Syria. Refugee camps in Arsal that provide shelter to tens of thousands of Syrians who fled the war have been badly damaged in the fighting, forcing refugees to seek shelter in the town itself, Syrian activists in the area have said.
"The important thing is to stop the shelling. The wounded and dead are still coming. Since this morning we've had 30 wounded, all from shelling and snipers. All civilians," he said.
He said the hospital had counted 36 dead civilians since the fighting began, about 10 from Arsal and the rest Syrian refugees.
On Wednesday, the army was taking women and children out of the Arsal area. A convoy carrying food stopped near Labwa to feed them, carrying water, bread and cheese. Barefoot and dirt-stained children, clearly hungry, devoured the food.
"Since the fighting started, we haven't eaten, drunk or slept. The fighters were firing all the time. We were stuck in one room, then the army came and evacuated us today," Seifeddin said.
"Shells and bullets were raining all around us, we've been under siege for three days," said Sabah Omar, a 40-year-old Syrian woman with three children who said she had been displaced three times before.
A ceasefire began on Tuesday evening after the fighters freed three policemen in what one militant called a "goodwill gesture" in response to mediation by Sunni clerics from Lebanon's Muslim Clerics' Association.
Rocket fire, attacks and gun battles connected to Syria's war have plagued Lebanon and the conflict has worsened Lebanon's perennial political deadlock, with officials divided largely along sectarian lines.
More than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria's war, which started in 2011 as a peaceful protest movement, then degenerated into civil war after a government crackdown.
One Hezbollah member who refused to give his name said many of the militants in Arsal were foreigners.
"They will kill anybody who is not like them. Even Sunnis who are not like them, they will chop off their heads," he said.Last Mod: 06 Ağustos 2014, 17:03