Gunmen have killed ten Lebanese soldiers in clashes that erupted near the border with Syria after the army detained a suspected jihadist from the war-torn country, the military said Sunday.
The clashes are some of the worst violence to hit the tense border area of Ersal since the beginning of the war in neighboring Syria in 2011, with gunmen attacking Lebanese soldiers and police.
They broke out on Saturday afternoon, after the detention of a Syrian man who the army said admitted being a member of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, al-Nusra Front.
On Sunday morning, the fighting was continuing, and the army said it had lost eight soldiers.
“Army units continued military operations in the Ersal area and its surroundings throughout the night and into the morning, pursuing and engaging armed groups,” the military said.
“During the battles the army lost eight martyrs and a number of others have been wounded,” it said in a statement.
Throughout the night, the army said, troops battled gunmen who fired mortar shells at Ersal and the surrounding region.
The clashes began when soldiers arrested Imad Ahmed Jumaa, a Syrian man accused of belonging to al-Nusra Front.
Gunmen angered by the arrest surrounded Lebanese army checkpoints before opening fire on troops and storming a police post in the town of Ersal, security sources said.
Two civilians were reported killed in the storming of the police post, and the gunmen were said to have taken hostage a number of policemen, though there was no immediate confirmation.
Earlier, the army said two soldiers had been briefly held by the gunmen, before troops were able to free them.
The army warned of the seriousness of the situation and insisted it would “not allow any party to transfer the battle from Syria to its territory (Lebanon).”
“The army will be decisive and firm in its response and will not remain silent as foreigners try to turn our land into a field for crime and terrorism, murder and kidnapping.”
The outbreak of violence caused tensions in the northern city of Tripoli, where militants who back the Syrian uprising have regularly fought Lebanese security forces and residents who back Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
A security source said two soldiers were wounded in the clashes in Tripoli which involved gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade explosive devices.
The violence in Ersal prompted domestic and international concern, with the US State Department urging all parties to respect Lebanon’s policy of “dissociation” from the Syrian conflict.
Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the Ersal assault as a “flagrant attack on the Lebanese state and the Lebanese armed forces.”
He called on “all political forces to exercise wisdom and responsibility and to make every effort to protect Lebanon and distance it from the dangers around it.”
The army has deployed additional forces, including two helicopters, to the region to deal with the outbreak of violence.
Ersal, which is hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, has frequently been the scene of conflict with Lebanese security forces.
Syria’s army has also launched regular air raids and shelled the area around Ersal, saying it is targeting rebels who have holed up in the mountainous region surrounding the border town.
Tensions skyrocketed there earlier this year with a major influx of refugees and fighters after Syrian forces backed by members of the allied Lebanese Hezbollah movement recaptured most of the Qalamoun region, just across the border.
Despite the regime’s recapture of most of Qalamoun, pockets of opposition forces, including jihadists from al-Nusra and the Islamic State group remain in the area.
Jihadists engaged in fierce clashes with the regime in the Qalamoun region on Friday night, with at least 50 fighters killed, according to Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
According to the Observatory, more than 170,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, and the violence has regularly spilled into neighboring Lebanon, which is hosting more than a million Syrian refugees.