A deadly gunbattle between Lebanese troops and residents of this isolated border town has further strained political and sectarian tensions in a country already buffeted by the repercussions of the war in neighboring Syria.
The Feb. 1 gunbattle, which left at least one Sunni militant and two soldiers dead, has raised tensions to a dangerous level in this region of northeast Lebanon, an important hub of support for rebel Syrian groups battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as home to the militant Shiite Hezbollah organization which is a staunch ally of Mr. Assad.
A tense standoff prevails between the Lebanese government and army on one side and the Sunni residents of Arsal on the other. Lebanese special forces troops have deployed around the town and the government is demanding the surrender of the gunmen who fought the army. But the town’s residents are refusing to hand them over until an independent investigation is conducted into the incident.
“We have a problem with this,” says Ali Hujeiry, the mayor of Arsal. “There were about 200 to 300 people involved [in the fight against the soldiers]. We can’t hand them all over. The government is not being fair.”
The circumstances of the clash in Arsal are still unclear and hotly debated. Last week, Brig. Gen. Edmond Fadel, the head of Lebanese military intelligence, held a rare press conference to clarify the army’s version of events. He said that Khaled Hmayed, a 43-year-old resident of Arsal, had played a role in the kidnapping in 2011 of seven Estonian tourists in Lebanon and was a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, the extremist Syrian rebel faction that is branded a terrorist organization by the United States. General Fadel said that a group of soldiers and intelligence agents entered Arsal on February 1 and a shootout ensued when Mr. Hmayed resisted arrest. The army unit departed the town but became stranded in snow and mud in the rugged mountains.
Meanwhile, news of the shooting spread throughout Arsal and a group of 300 gunmen chased after the marooned soldiers. On reaching the soldiers, the gunmen surrounded their vehicles and opened fire, killing an officer and a sergeant and wounding several others. Some soldiers escaped, the rest surrendered and were transported along with the wounded and two dead back to Arsal. Subsequent reports alleged that the bodies of the two soldiers were mutilated and a photograph has circulated showing the head of one man with a deep axe-stroke gash in his skull.
“We know who did this and we have the names of around eighty people implicated in the incident,” Fadel told the press conference. “We are not a clan that will seek revenge … but whoever attacks the military institution is not forgotten by the army and will eventually be captured.”
The Lebanese army is regarded as the one state institution that guarantees stability in Lebanon and as such is rarely criticized in public. In the days following the clash, politicians issued statements praising the army and there were numerous demonstrations across the country with people blocking roads to express their support for the military.
Inside the sealed off town
The residents of Arsal also continue to declare support for the army even though their town is now sealed off by troops from the elite Air Assault regiment. The soldiers have set up a checkpoint along the one asphalt road that leads to the town where vehicles are searched and identification cards checked of anyone heading in and out of Arsal.
However, the residents have a different version of events that led to the gunbattle. They say that the accusations against Hmayed are untrue and that there was no attempt to arrest him before he was shot.
“The reason he was killed is because he was helping the revolution in Syria,” says Abdullah Hmayed, Khaled’s father. “They made a scenario that he was a big criminal but he had no arrest warrants against him. We are very proud of him. His acts caused a big headache [for the Syrian regime] and he was a burden on them. I won’t sit here and tell a lie. He had a big role in the revolution. That’s why he was found, monitored, and then executed.”
Hmayed and other residents say that the militant was shot dead in his vehicle while driving to a mosque to perform Friday noon prayers. His black Nissan pick-up truck is still parked on the side of the road where the ambush occurred a few hundred yards from his home. The vehicle’s hood and windscreen are riddled with bullet holes – residents say they counted 43 rounds – and dried blood has stained the front seats.
The residents additionally contend that more than two people were killed in the subsequent shootout in the mountains.
“We brought six dead from the mountain but the army only announced the deaths of two people. What happened to the other four?” said one young man in Arsal who refused to give his name.
Many residents believe that the four dead men were members of Hezbollah whom they accuse of accompanying the army soldiers into Arsal to apprehend or kill Hmayed. They question why the soldiers had not entered and departed Arsal along the single main road if they were on an approved mission. Instead, the troops used a dirt track that wound south from Arsal through desolate mountains to Shiite-populated villages where Hezbollah has a strong presence.
“I called the army, military intelligence, and the police after the shooting and they had no knowledge of the attempt to arrest Hmayed,” says Mr. Hujeiry, the mayor, suggesting that the mission was unauthorized.
The Lebanese army and Hezbollah have denied members of the militant group were present. Nawaf Sahili, a Hezbollah parliamentarian, said that the allegations were “unjust and unlawful.”
“There are some who are talking about a third party in the Arsal incident in order to ignite sectarian strife,” Sahili said last week.
Hotbed of Syrian rebel support
Arsal, a town of 48,000 residents, lies scattered untidily over a jumble of barren ochre-colored hills and separated from the rest of the country by a mountain ridge, enhancing its sense of isolation and independence. The town has a history of militancy and its residents have a reputation for being hardheaded and stubborn. In past decades, many residents joined Palestinian factions to fight Israeli occupation troops in south Lebanon. And in the past two years, Arsal has become a hotbed of support for Syrian rebel groups with Lebanese and Syrian fighters alike infiltrating Syria via the rugged mountains to the east and north.
“Hezbollah wants Arsal neutralized because of its support for the revolution,” says Khaled, a Lebanese Sunni from the nearby village of Fakihe who is a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army and has fought in Homs, Syria’s third largest city.
This area of the northern Bekaa Valley is home to Shiite Hezbollah militants and Sunni volunteers with the Free Syrian Army. The two enemies are fighting each other just inside Syria in a string of villages between Homs and the border with Lebanon. So far, both sides have refrained from dragging the war across the border into the northern Bekaa Valley, seemingly mindful of the consequences for Lebanon’s stability.
But the northern Bekaa is a tinderbox and the crisis in Arsal risks sparking a broader conflagration if a solution is not reached. The Lebanese have a time-worn ability to reach compromises after taking a situation to the brink and a deal may well be worked out in the days head. Still, the incident has fanned the flames of deep-rooted Sunni discontent at what they regard as Hezbollah's domineering behavior in Lebanon.
"How can the government punish someone for holding a pistol and turn a blind eye to those carrying missiles?" asks Hujeiry, the mayor, referring to Hezbollah's formidable arsenal of weapons, the existence of which is permitted by the government as a deterrence against potential Israeli aggression but opposed by the Shiite party's critics.
Sunni leaders flocking here
Already Sunni clerical and political leaders have flocked to Arsal to express support for the embattled residents and urge for an investigation into the Hmayed incident.
Sheikh Ahmad Assir, a firebrand Salafist cleric from Sidon in south Lebanon who in the past 18 months has risen from obscurity to prominence for his outspoken criticism of Hezbollah, has warned that he is ready to lift the “siege” of Arsal by force if necessary.
“There are 15,000 to 20,000 men ready and willing to fight right now in Arsal. We have the Free Syrian Army covering our backs and we have enough weapons and ammunition to fight a big battle,” says Khaled, the Lebanese FSA militant who has family in Arsal.
Hujeiry, against whom an arrest warrant was issued last week, says he hopes that a solution can be reached to de-escalate the situation. Standing in his home after a day of meetings at the municipality offices, Hujeiry looks tired but radiates a confidence borne of the knowledge that he has the sympathy and backing of much of Lebanon’s Sunni community.
“We have not grown bored of [the army encirclement] yet. When we have grown bored of it, we will see what the people will do,” he says with a smile. “Arsal is a hard card to play with. Only God will surrender Arsal.”