Rebels fighting in Syria's civil war crossed into Lebanon and raided a border town Saturday, killing and capturing security force members in the most serious incursion into the tiny country during its neighbour's 3-year-old conflict.
The rebels, who included foreign fighters, demanded to trade soldiers and police officers it captured in Arsal for some of the "most dangerous detainees," the Lebanese army said in a statement. Masked gunmen roamed the streets as Lebanese helicopter gunships flew over the town, some 88 kilometres from the capital, Beirut.
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A Lebanese army general told The Associated Press that the gunmen attacked army positions near Arsal and troops returned fire. Another official said the gunmen also took control of the main police station in the town, without elaborating.
Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported that Arsal residents later freed police officers at the station, though rebels captured some weapons and released several detainees. It said gunmen killed two residents near the police station. A picture posted online by militant sympathizers allegedly showed gunmen in Arsal driving away with a dozen men, two in police uniforms. The photograph corresponded to other AP reporting about the attack.
The National News Agency said that gunmen killed two soldiers and wounded several others.
"What is happening today is among the most dangerous of what Lebanon and the Lebanese are being subjected to," the army statement said. "The gunmen kidnapped several soldiers and policemen who were spending the weekend with their families ... and demanded the release of some of the most dangerous detainees held by the army.
"The Lebanese army will not accept that its members be hostages and will not stay silent about targeting the army and Arsal residents."
The statement said the Lebanese army "will not allow any side to move the battle from Syria" into Lebanon. It added that the army "will not allow any foreign gunman to endanger the security of Lebanon or to harm its soldiers or policemen."
The Lebanese army general said earlier in the day that gunmen took two soldiers who were driving an army tanker truck. The army's later statement said the two soldiers were later freed in an army operation.
The general and the official spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
Rebel attacks deeper into Lebanese territory
Saturday's attacks came hours after the army said troops detained Syrian citizen Imad Ahmad Jomaa, who identified himself as a member of Syria's al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. The National News Agency said Jomaa was detained as he was being brought to a hospital in Lebanon after being wounded while fighting Syrian troops.
Syria's civil war has spilled over into Lebanon on multiple occasions and inflamed sectarian tensions leaving scores dead. However, previous rebel attacks never went so deeply into Lebanese territory.
Arsal is home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and rebels enjoy wide support among its population. Lebanese Sunnis, such as the residents of Arsal, often back the Sunni rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Shias typically back Assad.
The violence in Arsal also came after an ambush near Syria's border with Lebanon killed dozens of opposition fighters, activists said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights said Syrian troops and members of Lebanon's Hezbollah group ambushed opposition fighters in the Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border, killing at least 50 of them. It said seven troops and Hezbollah fighters were killed in the fighting.
Syrian state television reported clashes in Qalamoun that killed "tens of terrorists." Syrian media refers to all opposition fighters as terrorists.
Government troops backed by Hezbollah fighters have seized nearly all the strategic Qalamoun region since launching an offensive there last November, severing rebel supply lines from neighbouring Lebanon.
The Syrian uprising began in the form of peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad in March 2011, but escalated into an insurgency when government forces violently cracked down on dissent.
The country is now in the grip of a complex civil war pitting several rebel and Islamic extremist groups against the government and each other. Over 170,000 people have been killed in Syria in more than three years of fighting, activists say.