Lebanon preparing for military operation near Syria border

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BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon is preparing a military operation to secure a lawless section of the border with Syria, Prime Minister Saad Hariri told parliament on Tuesday.

The leader of Lebanon's powerful militant group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, hinted in a speech last week that a joint operation was in the works with the Lebanese and Syrian militaries to expel Islamic State and Al-Qaida-linked militants from the Arsal region, which is home to a large number of Syrian refugees.

The Lebanese military is expected to try and root out militants from the Lebanese side of the mountainous frontier, retired Gen. Elias Hanna told The Associated Press.

There will be concerns about civilian casualties if the militants infiltrate Arsal, which has a population of 60,000, or draw the army into battles inside the Syrian refugee communities in the area, said Hanna.

Relations between the refugees and the Lebanese army are already strained following a raid on June 30 that resulted in the detention of 355 Syrians; four later died in army custody.

Hariri, an outspoken opponent of Syrian President Bashar Assad, promised the Lebanese military would not coordinate with Syrian troops.

Amnesty International called on the Lebanese military and other parties to "prioritize the protection of Lebanese residents as well as Syrian refugees in the area," adding that "thousands of lives are on the line."

The Syrian army and Hezbollah are expected to battle the militants on the Syrian side of the frontier. Hezbollah has been a key Assad ally throughout the civil war.

The war in Syria has buffeted Arsal since 2011, when the first refugees crossed over fleeing the violence. A major battle between Hezbollah and the government on one side and Syrian rebels on the other drove a wave of refugees into Arsal in 2013. There could be as many as 80,000 refugees around Arsal today.

Militants seized Arsal briefly in 2014, abducting several Lebanese servicemen before retreating back to the mountains. The army and Hezbollah have kept the town under restrictive guard since then.

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