Lebanon’s army surrounded a border town occupied by Islamist militants on Wednesday, arresting men and evacuating refugees as the most serious spillover of Syria’s civil war onto Lebanese soil lurched into its fifth day.
A Syrian refugee brought out by troops from the hill town of Arsal said she had seen fighters’ bodies lying in the streets.
“We saw death with our own eyes,” said Mariam Seifeddin, a 35-year-old mother of nine, who said she had sheltered with about 50 others in a single room without food or water for three days amid intense fighting.
Saudi Arabian King Abdullah granted $1-billion (U.S.) to help the Lebanese army to bolster security as they battle militants in Arsal on the Syrian frontier, state news agency SPA reported.
Machine-gun fire and shelling broke out on Wednesday on the outskirts of the town in breach of the 24-hour truce, which came into force at 7 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
Political sources said the army was not planning to immediately retake Arsal but to evacuate civilians. A security official and a doctor in Arsal said many militants had now fled for surrounding mountains following the army bombardment.
Arsal is the first major incursion into Lebanon by hardline Sunni militants – leading players in Sunni-Shia violence unfolding across the Levant – which threatens the stability of Lebanon by inflaming its own sectarian tensions.
Also Wednesday, Kurdish forces attacked fighters with the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant) near the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil in northern Iraq on Wednesday in a change of tactics supported by the Iraqi central government to try to break the Islamists’ momentum.
The attack 40 kilometres southwest of Erbil came after the Sunni militants inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Kurds on Sunday with a rapid advance through three towns, prompting Iraq’s prime minister to order his air force for the first time to back the Kurdish forces.
“We have changed our tactics from being defensive to being offensive. Now we are clashing with the Islamic State in Makhmur,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary-general of the ministry in charge of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
The location of the clashes puts the Sunni militants' forces closer than they have ever been to the Kurdish semi-autonomous region since they swept through northern Iraq almost unopposed in June.
The Islamic State, which believes Iraq’s majority Shiites are infidels who deserve to be killed, has put Iraq’s survival as a unified state in jeopardy.
It seized three more towns and a fifth oilfield and reached Iraq’s biggest dam during the weekend offensive.
The capture of one of the towns, Sinjar, home to many of Iraq’s Yazidi minority sect, could lead to a humanitarian crisis. Yazidis, ethnic Kurds who follow an ancient religion derived from Zoroastrianism, are at high risk of being executed because the Sunni militants view them as devil worshippers.
Yawar said 50,000 Yazidis now hiding on a mountain risked starving to death if they were not rescued within 24 hours.
“Urgent international action is needed to save them. Many of them, mainly the elderly, children and pregnant women, have [already] died,” he said.
“We can’t stop the Islamic State from attacking the people on the mountain because there is one paved road leading up to the mountain and it can be used by them. They [Islamic State fighters] are trying to get to that road.”
There are no signs that revived military co-operation between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Baghdad government has eased the dangers posed by the militants.
State television reported that Kurdish forces backed by Maliki’s air force launched a surprise attack on the city of Mosul, a major urban centre held by the Sunni militants.
Scores of Sunni militant fighters fled, it said.
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