LABWEH, Lebanon (AP) — Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees crammed into cars and pickup trucks fled Monday as Lebanese artillery pounded a border town that had been overrun by militants from neighboring Syria.
The civilian exodus came in the early morning hours during a relative lull in fighting and just a few hours later the bombardment around the town of Arsal had reached an intensity of three shells every minute.
The fighting is the most serious spillover of violence from Syria’s civil war into Lebanon, compounding fears that tiny Lebanon is fast becoming a new front in its neighbor’s conflict, now in its third year. The government has rushed reinforcements to scene, including dozens of armored personal carriers and tanks.
The three days of clashes in Arsal, a predominantly Sunni town surrounded by Shiite villages, could worsen already bubbling sectarian tensions in Lebanon. The Syrian government, which is battling a largely Sunni insurgency, has the support of Lebanon’s premier Shiite militia, Hezbollah.
The town of 40,000, whose population has almost tripled because of the presence of Syrian refugees and rebels, is wedged between Syrian government-controlled territory and Lebanese Shiite villages sympathetic to Hezbollah.
A senior Lebanese security official said 17 soldiers have been killed in three days of fighting, including two lieutenant colonels, and 13 others were missing. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Lebanon’s state-run news agency said the rebels were looting homes and shops in Arsal and a resident on the outskirts told The Associated Press that the militants were committing “atrocities” and shooting at people attempting to flee.
“The rebels feel protected by the civilians there,” he said, confirming there was widespread looting with rebels taking over civilian homes to use as military posts.
Among those fleeing Monday was Aziza Rayed, in her 60s, who said her family was going to the nearby border town of Qaa.
“We are leaving to take these children to a safer place,” she said, her children and grandchildren in the back of a pickup truck.
Syrian refugees who had earlier fled the war at home for Arsal’s safety found themselves on the road again. Fatmeh Meshref from the Syrian central city of Homs, said she and her husband and five children were terrified.
“Our children were screaming and we had no place to hide,” she said.
The Syrian incursion and capture of Arsal came after the Lebanese army said its troops had detained Imad Ahmad Jomaa, who identified himself as a member of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front – one of the most powerful rebel groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops.
The state-run National News Agency reported on Saturday that Jomaa was detained as he was being brought to a hospital in Lebanon after being wounded while fighting Syrian troops.
Lebanese army chief Gen. Jean Kahwaji said on Sunday that the Syrian fighters in Arsal belonged to extremist Sunni groups, without naming them. He said the fighting was “more serious than what some people imagine” and called on Lebanese politicians to show unequivocal support for the military.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed reporting from Beirut.