BEIRUT (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-linked fighters battled with members of Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Syrian army in a mountainous area on the Syria-Lebanon border on Saturday, leading to deaths on both sides, security sources said.
Three Hezbollah fighters, five Syrian soldiers and more than 15 members of al Qaeda’s Syria wing Nusra Front were killed when Nusra attacked Flita, a village just inside Syria in the Qalamoun mountain range, Lebanese and Syrian security sources said.
In recent months fighting has raged in the Qalamoun area which stretches along Syria’s western border with Lebanon, threatening to drag the smaller Mediterranean state deeper into its neighbor’s nearly four-year civil war.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Nusra Front had attacked Hezbollah and the Syrian army with mortar fire and that the Syrian military responded by shelling areas in the Qalamoun area.
Shi‘ite Muslim group Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to support Syria’s army in the conflict and has regularly clashed with Sunni Islamist groups like Nusra and Islamic State.
The head of Lebanon’s security apparatus told Reuters that militants in the Qalamoun mountains were seeking to gain control of nearby Lebanese villages to support their fighting positions.
Fighting from Syria spilled into Lebanon several times last year. Islamic State and Syria’s al Qaeda wing attacked the border town of Arsal in August and took Lebanese soldiers captive, and gunmen, including some linked to Islamic State, clashed with the army in Tripoli in October.
Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by David Holmes