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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Lebanon to launch military operation near Syria border

The area of Jurud Arsal — where the operation will take place — is home to thousands of refugees from neighbouring Syria who live in informal camps there

A Lebanese soldier stands at an army post in the hills above the Lebanese town of Arsal, near the border with Syria, on September 21, 2016. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
A Lebanese soldier stands at an army post in the hills above the Lebanese town of Arsal, near the border with Syria, on September 21, 2016. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

Lebanese security forces will launch an operation against militants near informal refugee camps in the country's east after coming under attack there, Lebanon's prime minister said on Tuesday.

Saad Hariri's announcement came as the Lebanese president warned against rising anti-refugee rhetoric after government troops were attacked around Arsal.

"The Lebanese army will carry out a planned-out operation in Jurud Arsal and the government gives it freedom [to do so]," Mr Hariri said in comments quoted by the official National News Agency.

Jurud Arsal refers to the mountainous border region around the Lebanese town of Arsal, and is home to thousands of refugees from neighbouring Syria who live in informal camps there.

Read more: Lebanon bans all protests after calls for demonstrations by Syrian activists

Lebanese troops carrying out arrest raids in two of the camps late last month were met with a string of suicide attacks and grenades.

A girl was killed and seven soldiers wounded in the attacks, and the army subsequently arrested dozens of people.

Days later, the army said four of those detained had died of pre-existing medical conditions, but rights groups urged an independent investigation after allegations that the men had been tortured to death.

Lebanese security forces have come under attack in Arsal before. In 2014, extremists kidnapped 30 soldiers and policemen after clashes in the area.

Four of the hostages were killed and a fifth died of his wounds, while 16 were eventually released in December 2015.

Another nine hostages are still being held.

The latest incident in Arsal has created renewed tensions in a country of just four million people hosting more than one million Syrian refugees.

But Lebanese president Michel Aoun warned on Tuesday that anti-refugee rhetoric was dangerous for both sides.

"If we are working for the return of the refugees, it is because Lebanon is no longer able to carry the burden," Mr Aoun said at a meeting with local officials, and in a post on his official Twitter account.

"But the spread of hatred and incitement are rejected, and their consequences are severe for both peoples."

Lebanese leaders across the political spectrum have increased their calls for Syrian refugees to be repatriated, citing security concerns and unsustainable strains on local infrastructure.

But parties differ on how that should happen.

Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose group is fighting alongside the Syrian government, has urged Lebanon to co-ordinate refugee returns with Damascus.

Others want to see the United Nations organise the process, although UN officials have said it is too soon to begin returning Syrians home.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011. Fighting continues in large parts of the country despite international peace talks and tentative ceasefire proposals.