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Along Syria's volatile border, rebels, rabbits, and ambushes

A Lebanese gas smuggler was killed in a Syrian Army ambush this week, snapping the patience of locals in the Lebanese town of Arsal. Another ambush targeted rabbit hunters.

By Correspondent / June 8, 2012

A bullet-riddled car is pictured after clashes in the hillside town of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, near the Lebanese-Syrian border, June 6. Syrian forces killed a Lebanese man and wounded at least two others in a gunfight on the Lebanese-Syrian border on Wednesday, security sources said.

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

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Arsal, Lebanon

Mohammed Hamade, a resident of this remote town in northeast Lebanon, took a great risk this week to try to drive into Syria and smuggle diesel fuel back into Lebanon. But he never made it to the border. He was killed just inside Lebanon in a Syrian Army ambush – an incident that spurred a serious armed clash between the soldiers and furious residents of this Sunni town, which has become a bedrock of support for the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

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"What happened to Hamade is only the latest example of Syrian forces coming into Lebanon and killing our people," says Ali Hujairi, the mayor of Arsal.

Mr. Hamade was not the first resident of Arsal to die at the hands of Syrian forces in the past year. But amid a surge in violence along Lebanon's northern border over the past six weeks, his death snapped the patience of a people who live by rigid tribal rules and have scant respect for the authority of a Lebanese state that they claim has long ignored their needs.

The Lebanese government, which is composed mainly of allies of Damascus, has adopted a policy of disassociation with the crisis in Syria. It has been reluctant to voice strong criticism of cross-border shootings by Syrian troops, abductions of Lebanese, citizens and Syrian army incursions into Lebanese territory, especially in the unpoliced barren wilderness east and north of Arsal where only a few goat herders live in scattered dwellings.

As Syria's troubles have slipped across the border, catalyzing factional fighting in Tripoli and sending tremors of disquiet through Lebanese who fear worse is to follow, the government's policy has come under increasing pressure. Yesterday, in a rare censure of Syrian behavior, Saqr Saqr, the head of Lebanon's military court, charged unnamed Syrian soldiers with killing Ali Shaaban, a cameraman for Lebanon's Al-Jadeed television who died in a hail of gunfire along the border with Syria two months ago.

Arsal: Stronghold of support for Syrian regime

Arsal, which lies in a shallow valley surrounded by barren limestone mountains, has a long history of opposition to the Syrian regime. Since the Syrian uprising began last year, the town has emerged as the nexus of Lebanese Sunni support for opponents of the Syrian regime, whether refugees fleeing the violence, militants from the Free Syrian Army, Lebanese volunteers for the armed struggle, or arms smugglers using the rugged unpopulated mountains to transfer weapons to Syrian hotspots.

When Hamade was killed, dozens of young men grabbed their weapons and drove along the rugged tracks cutting across dried up river beds and a stony semi-desert toward a mountain range six miles east of the town, which marks the border and where Syrian troops are deployed. Clashes lasted for several hours and included heavy machine guns and Syrian tank fire.

"We were caught in the middle of the battle," says Hussein Atrash, a middle-aged goatherder who lives with his family and 400 goats in Khirbet Daoud, a tiny community of isolated farmsteads close to the border. "There were bullets flying over our house."

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