Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat–Two Lebanese soldiers and two civilians were killed in clashes between the Lebanese army and fighters from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front in the town of Arsal near the Syrian border on Saturday.
On Sunday, French news agency AFP, said the number of soldiers killed had reached eight, while 11 insurgents were also killed as fighting continued overnight.
The clashes followed Saturday’s arrest by the Lebanese security forces of an Al-Nusra Front commander, Syrian national Imad Ahmed Juma’a, who was described to Asharq Al-Awsat by one of the group’s fighters—who refused to give his name—as the “emir,” or leader, of the group in Lebanon.
In response, Nusra Front fighters reportedly stormed a gendarmerie base in Arsal, taking 16 officers hostage.
The Lebanese army issued a statement in which it said it would “not allow anyone to transfer the fighting from Syria into Lebanon, or allow armed strangers to threaten Lebanese security.”
The statement added: “What happened today is a very serious threat to Lebanon and the Lebanese, because it clearly shows that there are those who have been planning to target Lebanon for some time in order to defeat the Lebanese army and take over Arsal.”
News agencies reported on Saturday that the region had been sealed off by Lebanese police and military forces.
A member of the Al-Nusra Front, a Syrian national who identified himself as “Abu-Zaid,” told Asharq Al-Awsat: “There will be more attacks against the Lebanese army unless Abu-Ahmed is released,” in reference to Imad Ahmed Juma’a.
Abu-Zaid said Juma’a had been to Arsal a number of times and had stayed with Syrian refugees. “His arrest followed clashes in Syria in which a number of fighters were injured, forcing him to travel to Arsal to transfer some of the injured to a field hospital there, when he was stopped at an army checkpoint,” he added.
Meanwhile, an eyewitness in Arsal, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity, said the situation in the town was “difficult and frightening,” and that “the noise of rockets and bullets was heard yesterday afternoon sporadically around the town.”
“Everyone is waiting for the repercussions of the army’s arrest of the Syrian suspect and fears revenge attacks by the Nusra fighters,” the source added.
Politicians from all sides condemned the attacks on the Lebanese army. Parliament speaker Nabih Berri said: “This is an attack on the whole of Lebanon and on all Lebanese people,” and called on the Lebanese people to unite behind the army and the security forces, because “our unity is our defense against terrorism.”
For his part, Prime Minister Tammam Salam said: “The Lebanese army in Arsal and the surrounding area is coming under attack from non-Lebanese armed groups, and these attacks are being firmly dealt with by the military and security forces.”
Salam added: “Lebanon will not allow a state of security chaos to be imposed on any Lebanese area under any circumstances, and the army will be able to end this developing situation and restore security and stability to Arsal and the surrounding area.”
The Al-Nusra Front is one of the most prominent groups fighting against the Syrian government, thanks to its links to Al-Qaeda, successes on the battlefield, and strong presence on social media networks.
However, it has recently lost ground in eastern Syria to its rivals from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and faces increasing pressure from Syrian government forces and its Hezbollah allies in the west of the country.