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Assad capture of Yabroud fuels Lebanese tensions - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A Lebanese army soldier stands in front of a damaged car at the site of a car bomb that exploded Sunday evening, in the town of Nabi Othman, in northeast Lebanon, on March 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

A Lebanese army soldier stands in front of a damaged car at the site of a car bomb that exploded Sunday evening, in the town of Nabi Othman, in northeast Lebanon, on March 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Sectarian tensions have been reignited in Lebanon after the Syrian government announced the capture of the strategic border town of Yabroud on Sunday, a critical blow to the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels seeking to topple the Assad government.

Syrian rebels responded to the capture of Yabroud by firing at least three rockets into Lebanon’s predominantly Shi’ite towns of Labweh and Nabi Othman, raising fears of acts of revenge against the nearby Sunni-majority town of Arsal. The Lebanese army confirmed that the rockets were fired from inside Syria.

Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah has proven instrumental in the fall of Yabroud, the Syrian opposition’s last stronghold along the Syria–Lebanon border. The capture of the city came following months of fighting between government troops, backed by Shi’ite militants, and mostly Islamist Syrian rebels. The town had been under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, who retreated in the face of an Al-Nusra Front advance. The Al-Nusra Front have now been dislodged from the town.

In a bid to contain the spillover from Syria, Lebanon’s authorities took a number of precautionary military and security measures, mobilizing troops in the area. Deputy mayor of Arsal, Ahmad Fliti, condemned the move, telling Asharq Al-Awsat: “This has left more than a hundred thousand people, including Syrian refugees, besieged for 48 hours.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam met with Army Chief Jean Kahwagi on Monday, urging him to “take all necessary measures to keep the situation in the border zone under control.”

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, a Lebanese military source confirmed that the army has “taken the highest levels of precaution,” including monitoring and pursuing any suspect vehicles in the region. The source added: “The mechanism for pursuing suspicious vehicles take surveillance into consideration, in addition to booby-trapped vehicles being pursued on the basis of prior intelligence.”

“There are several suspicious vehicles inside Lebanon that are being investigated and pursued,” the military source said, refusing to specify the precise number of vehicles being monitored by Lebanese authorities.

Most of the car bombs are thought to have come through Yabroud. Lebanese authorities hope that the town’s recapture by the Syrian government will result in better security coordination.

“[Lebanon’s army] is trying to cooperate with the municipalities of the villages along the Syrian border to close roads allowing access of cars and militants from the Syrian side into Lebanon,” the source said.

“[The army] allows the displaced to cross to Lebanon, but forces militants to return to Syria,” the source added.

At least six people were killed and dozens injured after a car bomb struck the pro-government district of Al-Zahraa in Syria’s central city of Homs on Monday, the state-run Ikhbariya TV channel reported.

Meanwhile, two civilians were reported killed in Damascus after a mortar shell landed near Umayyad Square.

Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, the southern area representative of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council Abu Ahmad Al-Assimi said: “In a bid to encircle the capital Damascus and block the opposition’s advance,the regime will seek to continue the battle for Qalamoun and then focus its operations in Aleppo and the southern area, including Qunaitra and Dera’a.”