Beirut • The Lebanese armed forces fired on Syrian aircraft that entered the country’s airspace Monday, the first such action since threatening last summer to attack any troops, vehicles or warplanes that violated Lebanese territory from Syria.
Security officials said that Syrian helicopters fired four missiles at a mountainous area near the border town of Arsal, where many Syrian refugees and rebel fighters cross into Lebanon, and that the Lebanese army responded with antiaircraft guns. No injuries were reported, and the Syrian state media did not immediately comment on the episode.
The Lebanese government has been under pressure to tighten its borders as Syria’s civil war worsens, deepening Lebanon’s political and sectarian divisions and leading to a rising number of car bombings, shellings and street battles.
On Sunday, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said the government had accepted a $3 billion aid package for the army from Saudi Arabia, an amount believed to be larger than the country’s defense budget.
The move was welcomed by some as a way to strengthen the army, which is facing a growing array of threats from militants inside Lebanon. But it was viewed as provocative by supporters of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group, who saw it as a bid to reduce the group’s influence over the army. Hezbollah, backed by Iran, supports the Syrian government, while Saudi Arabia is one of the main financiers of the Syrian insurgency.
Speculation arose Monday that the army’s new assertiveness against the Syrian airspace violation was at Saudi Arabia’s bidding in response to the aid package. Security officials said it was policy to respond to any violation of Lebanese territory. The army has also pursued and killed Syrian insurgents on Lebanese territory in recent weeks, according to the official National News Agency.
The Lebanese army has been hard pressed to control the borders, as militants - both Shiite Hezbollah fighters supporting the Syrian government and Sunni fighters joining the rebels - cross into Syria. There have also been periodic attacks by Syrian warplanes on rebels near the border as well as unsolved car bombings targeting Hezbollah-dominated civilian areas and the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. On Friday, another car bomb killed a former finance minister in downtown Beirut.
The army has also been called upon to calm street battles in the northern city of Tripoli and to attack the mosque complex of an extremist Sunni cleric in Sidon, south of Beirut. The army is seen as unable to confront Hezbollah, which maintains its own powerful independent militia and is believed to wield a strong influence over the army’s many Shiite officers.
In a sign of a worsening humanitarian crisis inside Syria, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said Monday that 15 Palestinians had died of malnutrition in Yarmouk Camp on the southern border of the capital, Damascus, including five in recent days.
“The situation has progressively deteriorated for some 20,000 Palestinians trapped inside Yarmouk, and although very alarming reports of hardship and hunger have continued to multiply, since September 2013 we have been unable to enter the area to deliver desperately needed relief supplies,” Christopher Gunness, an agency spokesman, said in a statement.
“The continued presence of armed groups that entered the area at the end of 2012 and its closure by government forces have thwarted all our humanitarian efforts,” Gunness added. “If this situation is not addressed urgently, it may be too late to save the lives of thousands of people, including children.”
(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)
The Syrian government has long portrayed itself as a defender of Palestinians, who enjoyed more rights and opportunities in prewar Syria than in other Arab countries. But they have increasingly been swept up in the battles and humanitarian crisis affecting the rest of the country’s population, with some fighting on each side.
The government has repeatedly refused to allow humanitarian convoys to enter blockaded rebel-held areas on the outskirts of Damascus.
Over the weekend, the government allowed a shipment of food into one such area, the suburb of Moadhamiya, after residents agreed to hoist the government flag over the town. A spokesman for the rebel council there, Qusai Zakarya, said the supplies amounted to just a few meals for each of the 8,000 people who rebels say are still trapped inside the town.