(Reuters) – The Lebanese army advanced on Monday into a border town attacked by Islamists at the weekend in the most serious spillover of the three-year-old Syrian civil war into Lebanon.
The military pounded areas around the town of Arsal with artillery for a third day in a bid to expel the fighters identified by the army as members of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, which has seized wide areas of Syria and Iraq.
Advancing soldiers found the bodies of 50 militants, a Lebanese security official said.
At least 13 soldiers have been killed in the fighting, which erupted after the Lebanese security forces arrested a Syrian Islamist rebel commander, Emad Jumaa, on Saturday. At least two dozen members of the Lebanese security services – both army and police – have been taken hostage or are missing.
The army has described the Islamists’ incursion as a long-planned attack. Local politicians say it marks an attempt to extend the Islamic State’s footprint into Lebanon.
The militants have been beaten back in the border area in the past year by Syrian government forces backed by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim political and military movement. Some 3,000 fighters are estimated to be in the border zone.
Thick plumes of black and grey smoke billowed from the tops of the hills where Arsal lies. Intermittent bursts of gunfire could be heard from the surrounding areas as the army sent in reinforcements.
A dozen armoured personnel carriers were seen advancing towards the town, together with a similar number of other military vehicles including trucks and Humvees. Soldiers armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades sat atop the vehicles as they moved along the main road towards Arsal.