Beirut (AFP) – Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group said on Friday its fighters had begun an operation against militants on both sides of the country’s border with Syria.
The operation has been anticipated for several weeks, and comes after Lebanese soldiers carrying out raids on Syrian refugee camps in the area were met with suicide bombings and a grenade attack.
That attack heightened tensions over the presence in Lebanon of more than a million refugees from the civil war across the border.
Hezbollah media outlets announced “the start of a military operation to purge Jurud Arsal and Qalamun of armed terrorists.”
Jurud Arsal is a mountainous area around the Lebanese border town of Arsal, which lies directly across from the Syrian Qalamun region.
Hezbollah media said the operation had been launched on two axes — from the Syrian town of Flita and from the southern part of Jurud Arsal, already under the group’s control.
Last week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, whose fighters have been battling inside Syria alongside government forces for years, warned that extremists in Jurud Arsal were “a threat to all, including the Syrian refugee camps”.
“It is time to end this threat,” he said.
– Refugees flee –
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Saad Hariri said “the Lebanese army would conduct a planned-out operation in Jurud Arsal and the government gives it freedom (to do so).”
But there was no official announcement from the military on whether Lebanese troops were taking part in the fighting.
The army did announce however that it had “authorised a group of women and children coming from a (refugee) camp close to the position of armed men to enter the town of Arsal.”
The border between Lebanon and Syria is ambiguously demarcated in places around the town of Arsal, which is home to around 45,000 Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations.
Other refugees are believed to be living in camps in the Jurud area, directly on the border, cut off from the town by checkpoints, but their numbers have not been confirmed.
While much of Qalamun is now under government control, pockets of rebel-held territory remain, particularly along the border.
Ahead of the operation, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon, Christophe Martin, told AFP that preparations had been made to receive wounded civilians from Jurud Arsal in the town.
“We support two hospitals in Arsal and we have supplied them with more medicine and surgical material because they have limited…