ARSAL, Lebanon — Syrian rebels from the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front have kidnapped at least six Syrian refugees from unofficial refugee camps along the remote Syria-Lebanon border in the last two weeks, sparking a tough crackdown by the Lebanese army, which last week sealed off this city and arrested several local rebel supporters.
Rebel supporters deny the army’s assertions that the border area has been flooded with Syrian rebels fleeing a Syrian government offensive, which has wrested control of nearby Syrian cities from the rebels. One activist, Abu Omar al Hujeiri, insisted that the rebels who withdrew from Qalamoun all went toward Syria’s Hama province and that the army’s description of the area was simply an excuse to harass the mostly Sunni Muslim population.
“The authorities and Hezbollah use these incidents as an excuse to crush Sunnis in Arsal by saying this town is full of terrorists,” he said.
But even Hujeiri, who faces criminal charges in Lebanon for belonging to an armed Syrian group, acknowledged that armed men from Syria have been snatching people along the border, recounting an incident May 5 when two armed men driving an SUV with Syrian license plates kidnapped four men from an unofficial refugee camp in the Wadi al Hosn area on Arsal’s outskirts.
The Lebanese National News Agency identified the four men as members of the al Ghawi and Yassine family from the Syrian village of Qara in Qalamoun, a mountainous region along the Syrian-Lebanese border where the Syrian government and its allies in Hezbollah have waged a months-long campaign to eject rebel forces. The fighting displaced hundreds of thousands of Syrians, many of whom fled to Lebanon.
A Lebanese security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he does not have permission to speak openly with reporters, said the kidnapping was “political and related to the security operations in Syria.” He said it was preceded by another kidnapping a week earlier of at least two other Syrian men from another part of Arsal. In both cases, he said, fighters from the Nusra Front conducted the kidnappings. In both cases, the victims were transported to Syria via one of the many smuggler trails that connect Qalamoun and Arsal, the security official said.
“We feared these incidents as the Qalamoun pocket collapses and terrorists are able to move into Lebanon with refugees as cover,” he said. “This is why we conducted the security operation.”
On Friday, the Lebanese army restricted access to areas around Arsal as it conducted a series of raids to capture armed men fleeing the battlefield and taking refuge in Lebanon. Tanks and helicopters could be seen circling the area between Arsal and the Syrian border, about five miles away, and soldiers confirmed they had been ordered to keep journalists out of the area during the operation.
“The decision to make Arsal a closed military zone is for your safety,” said a Lebanese army special forces captain who refused to give his name while briefly detaining a journalist at a checkpoint. “We are clearing terrorists from Arsal and from illegal camps along the border.”
The official National News Agency NA reported that Lebanese special forces units arrested at least 40 armed men in the operation.
Arsal has seen its normal 40,000 population nearly double from the influx of refugees from Syria, with tens of thousands more settling in outlying areas. Lebanon has more than 1 million refugees registered with the United Nations from the conflict in Syria, as well as hundreds of thousands of longtime Palestinian refugees spread between nine camps around the country.
Many Lebanese blame the Palestinians for the 1975 to 1990 Lebanese civil war. As a result, the government has been extremely reluctant to allow the establishment of official refugee camps that might become permanent.
A Hezbollah security official, Abu Reda Maqdad, said that the refugee populations _ both Syrian and Palestinian _ have become the group’s main security concern now that the Qalamoun area has been largely pacified.
“When we took Yabroud,” he said, referring to a rebel-controlled Syrian city not far from the Lebanese border that fell to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in March, “we found the car bomb factory.” That ended the threat of attacks coming from Syria that had included car bombings in Beirut. But he said Hezbollah and the Lebanese now fear extremists are “using the refugee situation to infiltrate the camps and Beirut.”
He also noted that the group’s patrols and training camps, which are mostly located in remote areas around the Syrian border and in the Bekaa Valley, have repeatedly encountered Syrian militants trying to infiltrate Lebanon.
“Every week we kill some,” he said. “Sometimes they’re coming to attack one of our facilities or sometimes we encounter them on patrols. But it’s every week since Yabroud fell.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.