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Violence in Arsal escalates

THE LEVANT – Fierce clashes between the army and armed groups in the eastern border region of Arsal continued into a second day on Sunday as troops sought to regain control of areas seized by the gunmen.

“Violent gunbattles broke out between the army and armed men near the municipal building after the gunmen tried to storm an army post near Arsal’s technical school,” state-run National News Agency reported.

“The town is also witnessing a massive exodus by residents while some fleeing cars are being targeted by gunshots,” NNA added.

Plumes of black smoke could be seen bellowing from several areas in the town’s barren mountains as a result of the fighting.

Ten soldiers have been killed and 25 others wounded since the eruption of clashes on Saturday, Army chief General Jean Qahwaji announced on Sunday, as he revealed that 13 troops have gone missing and are “possibly being held prisoner.”

A security source, meanwhile, said that a civilian had been killed by sniper fire inside Arsal, raising the civilian death toll in the fighting to three.

“Lebanese citizen M. al-Fleiti, 19, was killed by sniper fire as he was standing on his house’s balcony in Arsal,” al-Jadeed TV reported.

Meanwhile, MTV said the barracks of the army’s 83rd Battalion “has fallen into the hands of the gunmen,” noting that it is adjacent to some homes which had been seized by al-Nusra Front’s gunmen.

According to al-Jadeed, fierce shelling targeted the Ain al-Shaab hill and the army “asked journalists to retreat due to the intensity of clashes.”

Earlier on Sunday, an army soldier was killed in clashes with the gunmen near the technical school in Arsal as several army positions came under gunfire.

The army continued to send reinforcements to the area throughout the day.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam is scheduled to chair a security meeting at the Grand Serail later on Sunday in order to tackle the security developments, reported Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3).

An extraordinary cabinet session will also be held on Monday to follow up on the unrest.

VDL (93.3) had reported earlier that Syrian fighter jets also targeted al-Nusra Front gunmen, killing and wounding a number of them during raids in the region near Arsal.

The army had announced late on Saturday that it had regained “complete control” of the Wadi Hamyyed area in Arsal.

It was also in the process of “liberating some nearby hills,” said the National News Agency.

It reported “fierce clashes between the army and gunmen as the former sought to rid the area of the group.”

A military source had informed LBCI television that the majority of the gunmen in Arsal came from Syrian refugee camps.

Tension soared Saturday afternoon in the eastern border town of Arsal when masked Syrian gunmen infiltrated Lebanon after news circulated about the arrest of al-Nusra Front official Imad Ahmed Jomaa.

The infiltrators surrounded army checkpoints and targeted military posts with gunfire, while others stormed an Internal Security Forces post.

Clashes soon erupted between troops and the militants, resulting in the death of several soldiers and civilians.

Jomaa was arrested on Saturday while he was being transferred to a hospital after he sustained injuries during battles on the outskirts of Arsal.

Arsal, a predominantly Sunni area, backs the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The town lies 12 kilometers from the border with Syria and has been used as a conduit for weapons and rebels to enter Syria, while also serving as a refuge for people fleeing the conflict.

The town has seen a massive influx of refugees as a result of the heavy fighting in Qalamoun.

The area has also been the scene of frequent tensions with Lebanese security forces, as well as air raids and shelling by Syrian troops across the border who say they are targeting rebel forces holed up in the mountainous region.

Al-Nusra Front has been fighting against Syrian government forces along with other rebel groups.

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