TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Lebanon stood firmly behind its Army in its war against homegrown terrorism Sunday as the death toll from three days of pitched battles between troops and jihadists rose to at least 28.
The Army’s anti-terror push, backed by the country’s political leaders, heralded an open-ended confrontation with militants inspired by ISIS and Nusra Front who are fighting to establish a foothold in the multi-sectarian country.
The Army pledged to press on with its offensive until all the militants are crushed, a security source told The Daily Star, adding that the military was operating according to clear-cut dictums.
“The Army has three ‘Nos,’” the source said. “No to a cease-fire, no to safe corridors for terrorists and no to self-proclaimed security zones.”
According to the source, the spirits of troops were high and the Army had the upper hand in the battles.
Three days of running street battles between Lebanese troops and militants in the northern city of Tripoli and the district of Minyeh left at least 11 soldiers, 11 gunmen and six civilians dead, and more than 60 people wounded in the worst spillover of the war in Syria into Lebanese territory since ISIS and Nusra Front briefly overran the border town of Arsal in August.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam and Speaker Nabih Berri threw their weight behind the Army in its battle against terrorism.
“The political authority gives all the support to the Army and to security forces to the battle they are waging to crush terrorism,” Salam said in a statement.
Salam said the Army’s campaign against terrorist groups is irreversible. “The military and security measures taken by the armed forces and our choice [to combat] terrorism are irreversible,” he told visitors at his home in Mseitbeh. “We have no choice but to continue curbing and eliminating terrorism by any means.”
Berri blamed the outbreak of the new fighting in Tripoli on “speeches inflaming [sectarian] incitement and the distribution of money and arms” in the city.
“Security cannot be attained except by force and firmness,” Berri was quoted by visitors as saying. “The problem is not with the military or civilians, but with some politicians. It is not permissible at this stage when the Army is fighting a fierce battle against terrorism to criticize it along with its command.”
Meanwhile, the Nusra Front threatened to execute Ali Bazzal, one of the Lebanese soldiers it is holding captive, at 5 a.m. Monday after accusing the Lebanese Army of “cheating to gain time” and failing to meet its demand to end the offensive against militants in Tripoli.
In a statement posted on a Twitter account, the Nusra Front said it listed the name of captive George Khoury on the next hit list as a means of pressure to avoid a further deterioration of the internal situation in Lebanon.
Four soldiers were killed and six others wounded when militants ambushed two Army vehicles in Jisr al-Mhammra in Minyeh as the military continued to fight pockets of militants in the district, north of Tripoli.
Lebanese Army helicopter gunships blasted for the first time militant hideouts in north Lebanon Sunday after fighting between the military and jihadists in the city’s old souks intensified sharply overnight.
Army patrol units launched blistering attacks on militant hideouts inside Bab al-Tabbaneh, the first time troops penetrated deep inside the heavily armed neighborhood.
Militants and soldiers clashed in Bab al-Tabbaneh with machine guns and grenades, causing heavy damage to several apartment units being used by militants to attack the Army.
Also, 12 civilians were wounded when a mortar was fired near Bab al-Tabbaneh’s Harba Mosque. Ambulances that rushed to the scene couldn’t reach the area because of heavy gunfire that erupted after the crash.
A humanitarian corridor was observed Sunday evening in Bab al-Tabbaneh to allow the Red Cross to evacuate dozens of women and children after Salam appealed to Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi.
Residents of poverty-stricken Bab al-Tabbaneh reacted to the violence with grief. “Bab al-Tabbaneh residents, who already live in dire conditions, pay the price every single time,” shop-owner Ahmad Zoabi told The Daily Star. “If the state looked after us and provided job opportunities to the youth, none of this would have happened.”
Another resident began to weep as he spoke of the conditions in the neighborhood. “No one feels our suffering. No one stands by us,” Wadih Hoda said as he wiped away tears. “I hope that the Lebanese Army will help Tabbaneh’s children live a better life.”
Scores of families fled Tripoli to the nearby Dinnieh. Others sought refuge in safer areas of the city.
“The era of firing and assaulting the Army and then hiding inside Bab al-Tabbaneh is over,” a security source said, adding that troops were responding to attacks on their patrols with exceptionally heavy fire.
Three rigged cars and a weapons cache packed with ammunition and military gear, in addition to 50 explosive devices set for detonation, were seized by the Army during early morning raids in Minyeh, an Army statement said.
In an unprecedented move for the military in Tripoli, an Army helicopter targeted the Vegetable Market, where militants are holed up, with two rockets at 5:15 a.m. Sunday, security sources told The Daily Star.
Troops heavily deployed within Tripoli’s labyrinth-like old souks and in the Western Saqi area, which runs parallel to Bab al-Tabbaneh, and is considered as the souks only existing corridor toward the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the sources said.
The sources explained that the deployment of the Army in the Saqi was a pre-emptive step to prevent the militants from fleeing toward the coast. A military vessel equipped with a rocket launchpad was stationed off the city’s coast.
Fighting intensified after Tripoli militant leader Shadi al-Mawlawi refused to hand over to authorities soldier Tannous Nehme, who militants had snatched Saturday evening, the source said. Tannous was kidnapped from a taxi that was passing through embattled Bab al-Tabbaneh.
The sources added that Mawlawi received clear instructions from Nusra Front commander Abu Malek al-Talleh not to release the abducted soldier.
But Army Intelligence was able to free Nehme late Sunday evening, media reports said.
Militants affiliated with Mawlawi kidnapped a second soldier Sunday.
Fayez al-Amouri, a first adjutant from the Army’s border regiment, was kidnapped from his home in Bab al-Tabbaneh. According to security sources, Mawlawi has placed the halting of the Army’s operation in Tripoli as a prerequisite to the release of Amouri.
The security sources said that the Army command has made a decision to launch a “full-fledged and conclusive” operation against the militants, thus resorting to aerial attacks for the first time in the city.
Tripoli MPs and local officials called for an immediate cease-fire.
“We call for an immediate cease-fire in order to allow the evacuation of the wounded and the entry of humanitarian aid,” MP Mohammad Kabbara said on behalf of the handful of political and religious figures who met at his residence in Tripoli to discuss the crisis. “We assure that Tripoli has been and remains affiliated with the state’s institutions and against terrorism.”
Education Minister Elias Bou Saab announced that all public and private schools in Tripoli and Minyeh would be closed Monday due to the deteriorating security situation. He also said public schools located in safe areas in Tripoli would be used as temporary shelters for families fleeing the fighting.