Nusra-led militants pound Hezbollah, Syria army posts near Lebanon border

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Nusra-led militants pound Hezbollah, Syria army posts near Lebanon border
The Daily Star/May. 04, 2015

ARSAL, Lebanon: Islamist militants launched brazen surprise attacks on Hezbollah and Syrian army positions in the western Qalamoun mountain range along Lebanon’s border at dawn Monday, leaving a number of fighters dead and wounded, security sources said.

A security source said that the Nusra Front and allied Islamist factions deployed thousands of fighters who fanned out in areas near the Lebanese border. The fighters took up positions overlooking Hezbollah and Syrian army outposts in the towns of Wadi Barada, Al-Kfeir, Zabadani, Serghaya and Hreira.

The militants pounded the towns with rockets, surface-to-surface missiles and mortar shells, one source said, adding that the casualty toll was high, but could not provide a figure. Another source said he could confirm at least one Hezbollah fighter from Baalbek was killed in the attacks.

A Qalamoun source said that some fighters withdrew from the Syrian towns and headed west toward Lebanon, while fierce clashes between Hezbollah and the militants are still ongoing in some areas. Areas in Syria that lie in proximity to the outskirts of the Lebanese border town of Brital also saw fierce clashes between Hezbollah and Islamist militants.

Clashes began after Nusra Front militants and members of the Islamic Brigade attacked Hezbollah positions on the outskirts of the Lebanese border enclave of Tfeil, the Qalamoun town of Jreijeer and the village of Asal al-Ward, which is located near the northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV reported that the Syrian army and its allies foiled an attack carried out by the militant groups on the outskirts of Jibba and Assal al-Ward in Qalamoun. Security sources cited by the channel said that a number of Islamist militants were killed or wounded, and their vehicles were destroyed as they attempted to attack Syrian army posts on the outskirts of the towns.

A Syrian rebel group that goes by the name “Cling to the Rope of God Gathering” wrote on its Facebook page Monday that it was taking part in the battle. It said that Hezbollah suffered heavy losses and a number of positions on the outskirts of villages in western Qalamoun had been destroyed. The group added that clashes are still ongoing amid artillery and aerial bombardment by the Syrian army and allied militias stationed in the Lebanese villages of Nahle and Brital.

Monday’s surprise attack came after Islamist militants tactically withdrew from strategic areas in the western Qalamoun mountain range, allowing for the advance of Hezbollah and Syrian army forces, a source told The Daily Star. Instead of withdrawing into Syrian territory, fighters positioned themselves in surrounding areas from which they waged their bombardment Monday.

But another security source said that militants did not withdraw intentionally, but surrendered their positions to Hezbollah. The source said Hezbollah did not advance on the positions, fearing a trap. A number of militants surrendered to Hezbollah during the withdrawal, the source added. The attack comes one day after the Nusra Front announced that it was training its fighters to use anti-tank weapons in Syria’s Qalamoun mountain range, ahead of a an anticipated battle with Hezbollah and the Syrian army.

A Nusra Front-affiliated Twitter page posted numerous pictures of military training operations reportedly in the Qalamoun region. One picture showed at least 12 fighters gathered around one anti-tank missle launcher. “Training the Mujahideen on the use of anti-tank warheads in Nusra Front’s training camps in the Qalamoun Mountains,” read the caption to the photo.

Two other similar photos were posted showing fighters handling the warheads. Another picture showed a Nusra Front tank surrounded by several armed militants. “Mujahideen training on all types of weapons in training camps,” read the caption. “They are almost ready to free their villages.”Elements of ISIS, the Nusra Front and other Syrian rebel groups have been fighting each other and against forces allied to the Syrian government in the Qalamoun mountain range over the past two years.

In October, Nusra fighters in Qalamoun launched a surprise attack on Hezbollah posts on the outskirts of the eastern Lebanese towns of Brital and Nahle, killing eight. The Lebanese Army has also clashed intermittently with Qalamoun-based rebels along Lebanon’s eastern borde