Beirut: Lebanese soldiers traded fire with Islamist gunmen and shelled areas around the border town of Arsal on Sunday in a push to dislodge the biggest incursion by militants into Lebanon since Syria's civil war began.
At least 10 Lebanese soldiers have died in the fighting, which erupted after Islamist gunmen seized a local police station on Saturday in response to the arrest of their commander, security officials said.
An unknown number of militants and civilians, possibly dozens, have also been killed, and security sources say at least 16 members of Lebanon's security forces have been taken captive.
Security officials say the gunmen in Arsal include fighters linked to the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq, as well as Syria's al Qaeda branch, the Nusra Front.
Residents said many of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who had taken shelter in the hills around Arsal had abandoned their camps and were sleeping in the town's streets to escape bombardment. Fires had broken out in some camps.
"They're shelling from all directions," said Qassem Al-Zein, a doctor at the field hospital in Arsal, adding that the hospital had recorded 10 civilians killed so far.
Lebanon, a Mediterranean country of about 4 million people which borders Israel, has struggled with the shockwaves of Syria's three-year-old conflict, whose sectarian dimensions echo those of its own 1975-90 civil war.
Suicide attacks, car bombs, gun battles, kidnappings and rocket fire have plagued Lebanon, but the confrontation in Arsal has been the biggest direct clash between Lebanon's army and rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Hezbollah had heavily deployed fighters around Arsal - a Sunni town sandwiched between Syrian government-controlled territory and Lebanese Shi'ite areas sympathetic to the group - a source said on Saturday.
Syrian activists in the town said Hezbollah appeared to have been involved in the fighting, but this was not possible to verify and there was no comment from the group.
Hezbollah fighters have regularly taken part in battles against rebels just over the border in Syria's Qalamoun region for months, helping the Assad government forces to flush out insurgents from towns and villages near the border.
Lebanon's Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim politicians have largely backed opposing sides in the war, with Sunnis usually supporting the mainly Sunni rebels and Shi'ites sticking behind Assad, a member of the Shi'ite-derived Alawite sect.
The fighting also spread briefly this weekend to Lebanon's main northern coastal city of Tripoli, where Syria's war has enflamed decades-old tensions between local Sunnis and Alawites.
Soldiers battled masked gunmen overnight and into Sunday morning after militants opened fire on army positions in several areas of the Mediterranean port city, the National News Agency said. A bomb also targeted an army patrol, wounding an officer and a soldier, it said.
Officials across Lebanon's political spectrum have condemned the Arsal attack, but in a sign of the country's own deep tensions some also took the opportunity to criticise their foes.
Jamil al-Sayyed, a Shi'ite and former head of Lebanon's General Security agency, said responsibility for what was happening in Arsal fell on the Sunni-led Future Movement bloc.
"This movement and its allies have and still are providing a conducive environment and political cover for militants from all nationalities, ever since the first day of the events in Syria," he said in a statement carried by the National News Agency.
Former prime minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni, called for Syrian gunmen to withdraw from Lebanon but also said Hezbollah fighters must leave Syria.
Lebanon's perennial political deadlock has been worsened by tensions over Syria - the country has been unable to elect a president since May because of disagreement over a candidate between its main Sunni and Shi'ite-led parliamentary blocs.
Arsal has long been a tinderbox for Lebanon's tensions. Rebels operating across the border in Syria's mountainous Qalamoun region have frequently crossed the porous border, often resting or seeking medical treatment in town.
Saturday's fighting started after Lebanese security forces arrested Emad Jumaa, a rebel commander popular among the hardline Islamist fighters in the area.
Gunmen responded by seizing the police station, attacking army checkpoints, taking at least 16 members of Lebanon's security forces captive and demanding that Jumaa be freed.
Lebanese military vehicles have deployed around Arsal and shelled the area while Syrian warplanes have been bombing rebel positions in the town's environs, residents say.
"The situation is bad," Arsal's mayor Ali al-Hujeiri said when reached briefly by phone. "Very, very bad."
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Updated Date: Aug 06, 2014 14:23:38 IST