Lebanese Army bolsters positions in country’s east

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Lebanese Army bolsters positions in country’s east
Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star/Jan. 26, 2015

BEIRUT: Lebanese Army troops reinforced their positions in east Lebanon Sunday to repulse new possible attacks by Syria-based jihadis as the military vowed to eradicate terrorism from Lebanon.

Separately, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut issued “a security message” over the weekend warning its citizens against traveling to Lebanon. According to the embassy’s Information Officer Geraldine Gassam, the statement sent to U.S. citizens stemmed from recent reports of alleged targets by suicide bombers in Lebanon. She said the message was not to be considered a travel advisory but instead “a security message.”

The Army’s pledge came two days after eight soldiers, including an officer, were killed and 22 others were wounded in fierce clashes with ISIS militants on the outskirts of the village of Ras Baalbek near Lebanon’s eastern frontier with Syria.

“We are fully confident of our capability to eradicate the phenomenon of terrorism from our national map no matter how long the road is and regardless of blood and sacrifices,” officers said in speeches during memorial ceremonies held for three of the slain eight soldiers in their hometowns.

“We are the people of this land, as in the past, present and in the future. Our prime duty is to defend it and safeguard its unity, sovereignty and independence,” the officers said, representing Defense Minister Samir Moqbel and Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi at the mourning ceremonies held for slain soldiers Ahmad Dana, 27, in the town of Saadnayel in the Bekaa; Hasan Wehbe, 24, in the town of Niha in Baalbek; and Army recruit Mujtaba Amhaz, 22, in the town of Hadath, south of Beirut.

Referring to militants who have attacked Army outposts, the officers said: “As for terrorists, they are gangs of strange mercenaries who have no cause, no religion, no identity and no affiliation. We are the sons of right and truth. They are the sons of wrong, illusion and the unknown. Anyone who is armed with right is inevitably destined for victory.”

More than 40 militants were discovered on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek, most of whom were killed in Army airstrikes on their vehicle convoy. The fighting erupted after ISIS militants attacked and briefly overran an Army post in Talet al-Hamra on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek. Friday’s was the most serious attack since ISIS and Nusra Front militants fought a five-day fierce battle with the Army in the northeastern town of Arsal in August. The two militant groups still hold 25 soldiers and policemen hostage on Arsal’s outskirts after capturing more than 37 during the Arsal fighting. Four have been killed, while some others have been released.

Security sources said the Army would reinforce its strategic outpost in Talet al-Hamra with the military’s airborne regiment in order to forestall any attacks by the militants.

The outpost, overlooking an area 2 kilometers deep into the Ras Baalbek outskirts, will become a strategic point to monitor the movements of militants entrenched on the rugged outskirts bordering Syria, the sources said.

There was a strong Army presence in the Ras Baalbek area Sunday. Soldiers, backed by the military’s airborne regiment, fanned out over the hills surrounding the outpost.

As part of its crackdown on terror cells, the Army said Sunday it had arrested 17 Syrians over suspected terror activities and illegal entry into Lebanon.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri praised the Army’s heroism in its battle against “terrorist extremist groups.”

“I call on all the Lebanese to unite and rally behind the Lebanese Army and security forces so that they can fulfill their duties and face the attacks that Lebanon is subjected to,” Hariri said in a statement Saturday.

Five soldiers, including an officer, killed in the Ras Baalbek fighting were laid to rest Saturday in their hometowns in the Bekaa, the north and the south after they were mourned by their families and Army colleagues.

First Lt. Ahmad Mahmoud Tabikh, 28, in a Lebanese-draped coffin, was buried in his hometown of Douris in Baalbek.

In addition to Tabikh, the Army announced the deaths of Sgt. Mohammad Niazi Nasreddine, 32; soldier Bilal Khodor Ahmad, 29; soldier Mohammad Ali Alaaeddine, 20; and soldier Hasan Ramadan Deeb, 23.

Speaking at memorial ceremonies for the five soldiers, an Army officer praised the victims who died in the battle against terrorism.

“The martyrdom of our hero comrades is a shining landmark in our open battle against terrorism,” he said. “This battle will have to be decided eventually in favor of the Army and Lebanon.”

U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag expressed “grave concern” over Friday’s attack on the Army. “The special coordinator lauded the efforts of the Lebanese Armed Forces to protect Lebanon’s borders and said the U.N. would continue to fully support Lebanon to maintain stability and security in the country,” said a statement released Sunday by Kaag’s office