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8 Lebanon soldiers killed in Syria border clashes

Eight Lebanese soldiers have been killed in clashes with gunmen on the Syrian border that erupted after the detention of a suspected Syrian jihadist, the army said on Sunday (August 3).

BAALBEK, Lebanon: Eight Lebanese soldiers have been killed in clashes with gunmen on the Syrian border that erupted after the detention of a suspected Syrian jihadist, the army said on Sunday (August 8). The clashes are some of the worst in the tense border area of Arsal in eastern Lebanon, with gunmen opening fire on Lebanese soldiers and police.

They erupted 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 troops.

"Army units continued military operations in the Arsal area and its surroundings throughout the night and into the morning, pursuing and engaging armed groups," the military said in a Sunday morning statement. "During the battles the army lost eight martyrs and a number of others have been wounded," it added.

Throughout the night, the army said, troops battled gunmen who fired mortar shells at Arsal and the surrounding region, in eastern Lebanon. The clashes began on Saturday afternoon after soldiers arrested Imad Ahmed Jumaa, a Syrian man accused of belonging to Al-Nusra Front.

Gunmen angered by the arrest surrounded army checkpoints in the region before opening fire on troops and storming a police post in the town of Arsal, security sources said. Two civilians were reported killed in the storming of the police post, and local media said the gunmen had also taken a number of policemen hostage, 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.

'DECISIVE AND FIRM' RESPONSE 

The army warned of the seriousness of the situation and pledged to respond in a "decisive and firm" manner. "The army will not allow any party to transfer the battle from Syria to its territory (Lebanon)," the statement said. "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 prompted domestic and international concern, the US State Department spokeswoman urging all parties to respect Lebanon's policy of "dissociation" from the Syrian conflict. The United States "strongly condemns the attack," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, vowing "strong support" from Washington for Lebanon's state institutions.

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the Arsal assault as a flagrant attack on the Lebanese state and the Lebanese armed forces. "The Lebanese government is dealing with these developments in a firm manner," he said, calling 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. Arsal, 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 Arsal, saying it is targeting rebels who have holed up in the mountainous region surrounding the border town.

INFLUX OF REFUGEES

Tensions skyrocketed there earlier this year with a major influx of refugees and fighters after Syrian forces backed by members of the allied Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement recaptured most of the Qalamun region, just across the border from Arsal. Despite the regime's recapture of most of Qalamun, 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 Qalamun region on Friday night, with at least 50 fighters killed, according to a Britain-based monitor. More than 170,000 people have been killed since Syria's conflict began in March 2011, and the violence has regularly spilled into neighbouring Lebanon, which is hosting more than a million Syrian refugees.

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