BEIRUT: The Army was poised Tuesday to launch its push against Daesh (ISIS) militants on the Lebanese border after a day of consolidating gains made over the weekend. Lebanese Army head Gen. Joseph Aoun announced the launch of the “Fajr Al-Jouroud” offensive early Saturday to clear Daesh militants from around 120 square kilometers of Lebanese territory between the southeast of Al-Qaa, the east of Ras Baalbeck and the northeast of Arsal. The Army has made swift gains against the militant group, which has been entrenched in the Lebanese-Syrian border region since 2014.
Monday saw Army sapper units and tactical bomb disposal experts clear land mines and IEDs, as military units solidified the large areas of territory taken Saturday and Sunday. Videos released by the Army showed specialist demining vehicles that used metal flails to dislodge – and detonate – any IEDs or landmines in its path.
The Army announced Sunday evening that some 80 square kilometers of territory had been retaken from Daesh, around two-thirds of the ground the group held. However, the push has come at a cost. Funerals were held Monday for three soldiers killed when their SUV triggered a land mine near Arsal Sunday.
Gen. Aoun visited some of the 13 soldiers wounded in the three-day offensive at St. George Hospital and the nearby Geitawi Hospital. The Army head wished the men a speedy recovery and thanked them for their service. Shortly pictures emerged of large memorials depicting the three fallen soldiers erected on the mountains around Ras Baalbeck.
Meanwhile in the area of operations, the Army uncovered a sizable weapons cache hidden in a recently captured Daesh command center and in nearby caves and tunnels. According to a statement from the Army, the haul included heavy machine guns, assault rifles, hand grenades, mines, explosive devices, surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank rockets in addition to communication and photography devices and other military equipment. There were also components for constructing IEDs. Images released by the military appeared to show dozens of RPG rounds and M79 Osa recoilless rifle rounds, a number of Kornet anti-tank missiles and sizable containers of large caliber machine gun rounds.
In a media conference held mid-afternoon Monday, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk announced that some 14,000 members of other domestic security forces and 700 officers had been placed on standby to support the Army in its offensive if needed.
With Daesh territory diminishing, there has been a concern of retaliatory terror attacks across the country or rocket fire directed toward civilian populations. So far, there has been no indication that these attacks have been planned but there is still the possibility of incidents.
MTV reported that the Army Intelligence had arrested a senior Daesh official in Lebanon late Monday. Basil Abdel-Qader is believed to be the senior security official for the militant group in Qalamoun and also goes by moniker “The Falcon of Arsal.” Earlier in the day, the intelligence branch referred another suspect, identified as Abdul-Rahman Mohammad al-Moussa, to the judicial authorities for alleged connections to Daesh, a military statement said.
Mohammad al-Moussa was arrested on suspicion of being in contact with Daesh. He is believed to have been actively coordinating with a local Daesh commander in Syria with the intent of joining the group’s ranks there.
“After the failure of his relocation to Syria, Moussa agreed to carry out a suicide attack in Lebanon in a location and timing that would be agreed later, at the behest of the commander,” the statement added.
The Army’s offense continued to receive praise from international officials with several embassies in Lebanon taking to twitter to congratulate the gains made and express sympathies to the Army for the deaths of the three servicemen.
“Thank you to the Lebanese soldiers serving on the front lines to rid #ISIS from #Lebanon and the world,” the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon said, in a post to its official Twitter account.
The French Embassy followed a short time later, saying: “We offer our condolences to the families of the soldiers who died during their fight against terrorism and are in unity with the injured.”
The British Embassy also mourned the loss of the three soldiers, posting a message in Arabic from ambassador Hugo Shorter saying, “My deepest sympathies to families and friends of the brave @LebArmyOfficial soldiers who have died and been injured in defending #Lebanon from Daesh.” The embassy also tweeted a number of info-graphics highlighting the over $60 million of support the U.K. has provided to boost the Army’s capabilities since 2011. The assistance included training, building of watchtowers and providing vehicles and equipment.
Throughout the day the Army maintained its bombardment of remaining Daesh positions with regular artillery, mortar, rocket and airstrikes. The Army has pounded positions heavily since the operation began Saturday, but it was a near-daily occurrence even before the push to expel the militant groups from Lebanon.
The military held a ceremony for Sgt. Bassem Moussa Moussa, born April 5, 1979 and Pvt. Othman Mahmoud al-Chedid, born April 1, 1989, outside the military hospital in Beirut’s Badaro. The ceremony included a procession of military police and an Army band.
Moussa’s body was then transferred to his hometown of Birqayel, in north Lebanon’s Akkar district where he was laid to rest shortly after midday prayers. Chedid, from Akkar’s Kouaikhat, was also laid to rest after noon prayers in his hometown.
A similar procession was held for Pvt. Elie Ibrahim Freijeh outside the Dar al-Amal University Hospital in Baalbeck before he was transferred to his hometown of Raeet near Zahle for burial. He was laid to rest after a service at the Church of the Cross at around 5 p.m. Monday. Freijeh was born Sept. 17, 1994. – Additional reporting by Ghinwa Obeid and Joseph Haboush