BEIRUT — Hezbollah fighters successfully ambushed a group of Syrian rebels over the weekend as they infiltrated Lebanon through a rugged mountain area along the Syrian border, killing about 30 of them, a Hezbollah commander confirmed Tuesday.
The rebel unit entered Lebanon early Saturday though a smuggler route outside the eastern Beqaa Valley town of Nahle, where Hezbollah maintains a number of training camps and arms depots, local residents have told Lebanese media. The Hezbollah commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t allowed to speak with the media, said that the rebels were infiltrating the area to fire rockets into nearby Shiite villages in retaliation for Hezbollah’s military involvement in the neighboring Syrian civil war.
“It was a complete team to fire Grad rockets into (the neighboring city of) Baalbak,” the commander said, referring to Russian-designed unguided rockets commonly used by both Hezbollah and the rebels. “Our unit from (nearby) Britel knows the area very well and was waiting for them. They were slaughtered.”
The Hezbollah source described the rebels as members of the Nusra Front, an al Qaida-linked group often cited as among the most militarily competent of the rebel forces in Syria. Although Lebanese security sources made the same claim to the local media, the presence of a large, armed group of Nusra fighters operating in Lebanon would be unusual and could not be independently verified.
The battle was the second large-scale confrontation between Hezbollah and Syrian rebel units since the beginning of the nearly 3-year-old Syrian revolution. A similar battle in the area also was reported in June, in which 12 rebels were reported killed.
The Syrian civil war has drawn Lebanon’s deeply divided Muslim community into armed conflict, with Sunni Muslims generally supporting the rebellion against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, an Alawite, which Shiite Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to protect.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly cited the presence in the Syrian rebellion of groups like the Nusra Front – which follow an ideology that believes Shiite Muslims are heretics _ as a justification for his group’s involvement to protect Shiite villages from just such rocket attacks.
Syrian rebels have repeatedly targeted these villages with inaccurate rocket fire that has caused minimal casualties and property damage. They also are believed to be behind at least four car bombings targeting either Hezbollah or the Shiite Muslim communities that strongly support it.
The local media reported that at least one Hezbollah fighter had been killed in the firefight with Nusra and that Hezbollah was in possession of at least 32 bodies of rebels slain in the incident, but the commander refused to confirm the specific numbers.
The border between Syria and Lebanon is covered in rough terrain, including a significant mountain range crossed with long-used smuggler routes. Much of the economy of the Beqaa Valley, for Sunni and Shiite alike, relies on such smuggling. As a result of this long history of cross-border traffic, the weak central Lebanese government has warned both sides that fighting could easily spread to Beqaa and even beyond as the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.