Thousands flee as Lebanese battle Syrian militants

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Syrian Rebels Attack Lebanon
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Thousands flee as Lebanese battle Syrian militants
Lebanese army reinforcements arrive to the outskirts of Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees packed cars and pickup trucks Monday, fleeing an eastern border town that was overrun by militants from neighboring Syria as Lebanese troops fight to liberate the area. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Lebanese army soldiers stand guard near military vehicles and armored personnel carriers at an entrance to Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees packed cars and pickup trucks Monday, fleeing an eastern border town that was overrun by militants from neighboring Syria as Lebanese troops fight to liberate the area. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Gunmen drive away with about a dozen men, two in camouflage police uniforms, in Arsal, a Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Saturday, Aug 2, 2014. 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 neighbor’s 3-year-old conflict. (AP Photo)
Lebanese army reinforcements arrive at the entrance of Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees packed cars and pickup trucks Monday, fleeing an eastern border town that was overrun by militants from neighboring Syria as Lebanese troops fight to liberate the area. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
A Lebanese army soldier stands guard on the outskirts of Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees packed cars and pickup trucks Monday, fleeing an eastern border town that was overrun by militants from neighboring Syria as Lebanese troops fight to liberate the area. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
A Lebanese army soldier walks past military vehicles and armored personnel carriers on the outskirts of Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees packed cars and pickup trucks Monday, fleeing an eastern border town that was overrun by militants from neighboring Syria as Lebanese troops fight to liberate the area. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Lebanese army soldiers prepare to deploy toward Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees packed cars and pickup trucks Monday, fleeing an eastern border town that was overrun by militants from neighboring Syria as Lebanese troops fight to liberate the area. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Smoke billows from Arsal, a Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Saturday, Aug 2, 2014. 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 neighbor’s 3-year-old conflict. (AP Photo)
Smoke billows from the Lebanese town of Arsal, a Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Saturday, Aug 2, 2014. 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 neighbor’s 3-year-old conflict. (AP Photo)
Gunmen drive away with about a dozen men, two in camouflage police uniforms, in Arsal, a Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Saturday, Aug 2, 2014. 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 neighbor’s 3-year-old conflict. (AP Photo)
This Sunday July 6, 2014 photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows weapons that SANA says were captured by Syrian government forces in Kafr Saghir, outside Aleppo, Northern Syria. Syrian troops advanced inside and near northern Aleppo on Monday in what appears to be an attempt to lay siege to rebel-held parts of the country's largest city, activist said Monday. (AP Photo/SANA)
This Sunday July 6, 2014 photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows weapons that SANA says were captured by Syrian government forces in Kafr Saghir, outside Aleppo, Northern Syria. Syrian troops advanced inside and near northern Aleppo on Monday in what appears to be an attempt to lay siege to rebel-held parts of the country's largest city, activist said Monday. (AP Photo/SANA)
This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian man carrying a wounded girl following a Syrian government airstrike at Karm al-Jabal area in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, June 26, 2014. Syrian warplanes struck the area in the northern province of Aleppo, killing and wounding dozens of people, activists said. (AP Photo/Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)
This photo taken on Wednesday, June 25, 2014, and provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrians inspecting the rubble of a damaged houses following a Syrian government airstrike in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)
This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrians inspect an area amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following a Syrian government airstrike at Karm al-Jabal area in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, June 26, 2014. Syrian warplanes struck the area in the northern province of Aleppo killing and wounding dozens of people, activists said. (AP Photo/Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)
FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012 file photo, Syrian rebel fighter Tawfiq Hassan, 23, a former butcher, poses for a picture, after returning from fighting against Syrian army forces in Aleppo, at a rebel headquarters in Marea on the outskirts of Aleppo city, Syria. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf petro-powerhouses encouraged a flow of cash to Sunni rebels in Syria for years. But now they face a worrying blowback as an al-Qaida breakaway group that benefited from some of the funding storms across a wide swath of Iraq. Gulf nations fear its extremism could be a threat to them as well. But the tangle of rivalries in the region is complex: Saudi Arabia and its allies firmly oppose any U.S. military action to stop the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq because they don’t want to boost its Shiite-led prime minister or his ally, Iran. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, June 12, 2014 file photo, Refugees fleeing from Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil, Iraq, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Baghdad. The militants' capture of Iraq’s cities of Mosul and Tikrit makes their dream of a new Islamic state look more realistic. It already controlled a swath of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River, with a spottier presence extending further west nearly to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. In Raqqa, the biggest city it holds in Syria, it imposes taxes, rebuilds bridges and enforces the law _ its strict version of Shariah. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - This still image from black and white gun camera video made by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense on Wednesday, June 11, 2014, shows what the ministry says are airstrikes on fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in an area near Mosul in Nineveh province, Iraq. The militants' capture of Iraq’s cities of Mosul and Tikrit makes their dream of a new Islamic state look more realistic. It already controlled a swath of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River, with a spottier presence extending further west nearly to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. In Raqqa, the biggest city it holds in Syria, it imposes taxes, rebuilds bridges and enforces the law _ its strict version of Shariah. (AP Photo/Iraqi Ministry of Defense)
This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens carrying a man who was injured by a government forces airstrike, in Aleppo, Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sharply criticized Syria's presidential vote this week as "a great big zero," and said it can't be considered fair "because you can't have an election where millions of your people don't even have an ability to vote."(AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)
This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian man looking at a damaged pickup which was carrying house belongings on a street that attacked by a government forces airstrike, in Aleppo, Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sharply criticized Syria's presidential vote this week as "a great big zero," and said it can't be considered fair "because you can't have an election where millions of your people don't even have an ability to vote."(AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)
This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Free Syrian Army fighters running at one of the front lines in the town of Sheikh Najjar, in Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday June 10, 2014. Fighting in eastern Syria between Islamic rebel brigades and an al-Qaida splinter group has killed more than 630 people and uprooted at least 130,000 since the end of April, an activist group said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)
This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Free Syrian Army fighter as he prepares a locally made missile to be fired against Syrian government forces, in Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday June 10, 2014. Fighting in eastern Syria between Islamic rebel brigades and an al-Qaida splinter group has killed more than 630 people and uprooted at least 130,000 since the end of April, an activist group said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)
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By BASSEM MROUE
Associated Press

LABWEH, Lebanon (AP) -- Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees were fleeing in packed cars and pickup trucks on Monday from an eastern border town that was overrun by militants from neighboring Syria.

The exodus came as Lebanese troops sent reinforcements in their struggle to purge Arsal of the Syrian extremists.

The clashes are the most serious spillover of violence from Syria's civil war into Lebanon, compounding fears that tiny Lebanon is fast becoming a new front in its neighbor's conflict, now in its third year.

The three-day fighting in Arsal, a predominantly Sunni town surrounded by Shiite villages, could worsen already-brewing sectarian tensions in Lebanon. The army has vowed to expel the militants from the town - an ambitious task considering the porous nature of the Syria-Lebanese border and the political and sectarian divisions within Lebanon.

So far, at least 11 Lebanese troops have been killed and 13 soldiers are missing in the Arsal clashes, which erupted Saturday after Syrian militants made a cross-border raid and overran army positions in the area.

Residents fleeing Arsal said they made use of a relative lull between midnight and Monday morning to pack up and leave. Heavy fighting then erupted and black smoke could be seen billowing over the town, which the Lebanese army sealed off to media.

Cracks of heavy gunfire and the thud of shells could be heard from a distance as tanks pounded rebel positions in and around Arsal. A dozen Lebanese army flatbed trucks were seen carrying tanks toward the outskirts of Arsal on Monday.

Among those fleeing was Aziza Rayed, in her 60s, who said her family was going to the nearby border town of Qaa.

"We are leaving to take these children to a safer place," she said, her children and grandchildren in the back of a pickup truck.

Syrian refugees who had earlier fled the war at home for Arsal's safety were among those fleeing Monday. One of them, Fatmeh Meshref from the Syrian central city of Homs, said she and her husband and five children were terrified.

"Our children were screaming and we had no place to hide," she said.

Lebanon Army Fights to Expel Militants from Border Town

The Syrian incursion and capture of Arsal came after the Lebanese army said its troops had detained Syrian Imad Ahmad Jomaa, who identified himself as a member of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front - one of the most powerful rebel groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops.

The state-run National News Agency reported on Saturday that Jomaa was detained as he was being brought to a hospital in Lebanon after being wounded while fighting Syrian troops.

Lebanese army chief Gen. Jean Kahwaji said on Sunday that the Syrian fighters in Arsal belonged to extremist Sunni groups, without naming them. He said the fighting was "more serious than what some people imagine" and called on Lebanese politicians to show unequivocal support for the military.

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