LABWEH, Lebanon (AP) Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees crammed into cars and pickup trucks fled a town in eastern Lebanon Monday as troops battled al-Qaida-linked militants from neighboring Syria who overran the border region in the most serious spillover into Lebanon of the three-year conflict next door.
The fierce fighting in Arsal, now in its third day, has killed 17 Lebanese soldiers and compounded fears that tiny Lebanon is fast becoming a new front in its neighbor’s conflict. The government rushed reinforcements to the scene, including dozens of armored personal carriers, tanks and elite troops, suggesting fighting was about to worsen.
The civilian exodus came in the early morning hours during a relative lull in fighting and just a few hours later the bombardment around the town of Arsal had reached an intensity of three shells every minute.
“We call on the Lebanese army to strike with an iron first,” said Mohammed Hojeiri, who fled Arsal with his family packed in an SUV Monday. “Those gunmen are terrorizing civilians.”
The clashes in Arsal, a predominantly Sunni town of 40,000 whose population has almost tripled because of the presence of Syrian refugees and rebels, could worsen already bubbling sectarian tensions in Lebanon. The town is wedged between Syrian government-controlled territory and Lebanese Shiite villages sympathetic to Lebanon’s premier Shiite militia, Hezbollah.
The Syrian government, which is battling West backed insurgency, has the support of Hezbollah.
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