BEIRUT: Arms smuggling from Lebanon to Syria has been going on for some time, but the Lebanese Army’s measures along the two countries’ common border have reduced the flow of gunmen and weapons into the neighboring state, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said Sunday.
Charbel’s remarks came as a Syrian government newspaper warned that Lebanon and Jordan were playing with fire by allowing jihadists and weapons to pass across their borders into Syria.
They also came amid escalating tensions on the Lebanese-Syrian frontier after Damascus threatened last week to attack “armed gangs” in Lebanon if incursions into its territory persisted.
“Arms trafficking from Lebanon to Syria has been ongoing for some time, as is the case on the borders of Syria’s other neighbors,” Charbel told The Daily Star, referring to Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. “But this trade has diminished after the Army took tight measures to prevent arms smuggling into Syria,” he said.
“The Lebanese Army, within the means it has, is trying to halt the flow of arms and gunmen from Lebanon into Syria and vice versa,” he added.
Although the Lebanese government has so far avoided comment on Syria’s threat to strike at rebels taking shelter in Lebanon, Charbel said the warning carried “a political message” to Lebanon.
“It’s a political message to Lebanon to be more strict in controlling the border and preventing arms and gunmen from entering Syrian territory,” the minister said. He added that the threat, contained in a letter sent by the Syrian Foreign Ministry to its Lebanese counterpart, would be discussed during this week’s Cabinet session.
“The Cabinet might take a stance on the Syrian threat and also ask the foreign minister to follow up on the issue with the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon.”
He ruled out a military escalation by Syria on the border “because the Lebanese Army is doing its job.”
The Lebanese Army denied media reports that it had vacated some of its outposts on the eastern border from Al-Qaa up to Qusaya.
“The Army forces are carrying out their mission as usual in maintaining security and stability and protecting citizens along the Lebanese-Syrian borders,” the Army said in a statement.
The Syrian threat has sparked fresh calls by the opposition March 14 parties for the deployment of the Lebanese Army and U.N. troops along the two countries’ common borders to prevent any Syrian attack on Lebanese territory.
In what appeared to be a response to the Syrian warning, President Michel Sleiman said Lebanon would not allow the flow of arms and gunmen from its territory into Syria or the establishment of military bases on its territory to be used for attacks on Syria.
Sleiman, currently on an African tour, told Lebanese expatriates in Ghana over the weekend that the Lebanese Army needed to be bolstered to face security challenges and reiterated his call on politicians to work toward a national defense strategy.
He also said it was important for Lebanon to uphold its disassociation policy toward developments in the region and the conflict in Syria.
Referring to Cabinet’s approved plan to allocate $1.6 billion to equip the Army, Sleiman told Lebanese expatriates at the Lebanese Embassy in Ghana: “The Army symbolizes national unity and has been able to maintain its unity in the most difficult of times. Therefore the [military] needs to be bolstered.”
He reiterated that Lebanon needed a national defense strategy that would pave the way for the military being able to fulfill its “national duty.”
Earlier Sunday, the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra warned that Lebanon and Jordan were playing with fire by allowing jihadists and weapons to cross their borders into Syria.
“The fire of terrorism will consume not only Syria, but could spread to Lebanon and Jordan, particularly if these two countries intervene in the situation in Syria, ignoring the flow of armed men and weapons from their territory, or by participating directly in the conspiracy against Syria,” it said.
“Jordan has opened its borders in recent days [allowing] passage of jihadists ... whereas before it was satisfied with just facilitating the movement of elements trained on its territory by U.S. intelligence,” it added.
“As for Lebanon, it is closing its eyes to the trafficking of weapons to Syria led by elements that are not part of the government,” the paper said.
Meanwhile, the sounds of gunfire and rumors of injuries have raised fears in Tripoli of renewed fighting between the rival neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. However, a security source dismissed the talk of fighting as baseless, saying it was aimed at raising tensions in the city.
Tripoli has been shaken in the past by clashes between the majority Alawite Jabal Mohsen, where most residents support Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the predominately Sunni and pro-Syrian uprising Bab al-Tabbaneh.
Rifaat Eid, head of the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, said there had been an increasing number of attacks against members of his sect.
Abdel-Latif Saleh, an ADP media officer, said a member of the Al-Hassakeh family in Jabal Mohsen had been shot in the shoulder by a sniper and had received treatment at Jabal Mohsen’s Al-Zahraa clinic.
Elsewhere, the body of a Hezbollah member killed in fighting in Syria was buried in southern Lebanon, AFP reported, quoting several residents of the man’s village.
“The funeral of Hasan Nimr Shartuni, 25, was this [Sunday] morning in Mays al-Jabal after his body arrived from Syria, where he was killed in fighting [Saturday],” a resident told AFP.
Two other residents confirmed the details of Shartuni’s burial.
Hezbollah has in recent months buried a number of fighters killed in Syria, without publicly disclosing how the men were killed or where.
Sources close to the party have said only that the men were killed “while carrying out their jihadist duty.”