The United States has begun delivering nearly $20 million of arms including assault rifles, anti-tank missiles and mortars to bolster Lebanon’s army after Islamist insurgents seized a border town for several days this month, U.S. officials said on Friday.
Lebanon, a country of about 4 million which borders Israel, has long been buffeted by the rivalries of regional and international powers including Iran and Saudi Arabia, who back its opposing politicians largely along sectarian lines.
But the threat of expansion by militants who want to build a “caliphate” stretching from Iraq to the Mediterranean has created an unusual common front among Lebanon’s otherwise normally fractious political forces against radical Islamists.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy said the arms shipments started on Thursday and so far had included 480 anti-tank guided missiles, more than 1,500 M16-A4 rifles, and “many mortars”.
It said that more mortars, grenade launchers, machineguns and anti-tank weapons would arrive “soon” and that further ammunition and heavy weaponry would follow in the coming weeks.
Embassy officials told Reuters the cost of items delivered on Thursday was over $8 million, the total of items delivered Friday was $793,000 and the cost of deliveries set for early September was estimated at over $11 million.
The press statement said the weaponry and ordnance was “paid for by the American people”.
Early this month militant Islamists entered Lebanon from Syria and seized the town of Arsal along the mountainous border in the most serious incursion by the rebels into Lebanon since Syria’s three-year-old war began.
The gunmen – some of them from al Qaeda’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front, as well as Islamic State, an al Qaeda splinter group that has seized territory in Iraq and Syria – withdrew after five days of fighting.
Quoting the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, David Hale, the embassy statement said the arms deliveries came after he met with Lebanon’s army chief Jean Kahwaji.
“We moved to supply the army with the weapons and the ammunition it asked for and that it needs to secure Lebanon’s borders and defeat these extremist groups that threaten Lebanon’s security,” the statement said.
Islamic State militants beheaded a Lebanese soldier who was one of 19 captured by hardline Syrian Islamists when they seized a Lebanese border town for a few days this month, a video posted on social media showed on Saturday.
The soldier, recognisable as Ali al-Sayyed, a Sunni Muslim from north Lebanon, was shown blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back, writhing and kicking the dusty ground while a militant announces he will be killed. Another militant then beheads him.
Islamic State, which declared a “caliphate” in June in parts of Iraq and Syria under its control, has been cited as a major security threat by Western governments since posting a video in August of the beheading of U.S journalist James Foley.
The Lebanese army declined to comment, but security and Islamic State sources confirmed the latest beheading.
Hours later, the group posted a second video showing nine other soldiers begging for their lives, urging their families to take to the streets in the next three days to demand the release of Islamist prisoners as a condition to escape al-Sayyed’s fate.
Earlier this month, several Syrian groups, including Islamic State and Nusra Front battled the Lebanese army after the arrest of rebel commander Emad Gomaa in the border town of Arsal. Gomaa is a Nusra commander who switched affiliation to Islamic State but remained popular among Nusra fighters.
The militants seized Arsal for five days before withdrawing to a mountainous border region, taking the 19 captive soldiers with them.
Most of the soldiers were taken by Islamic State militants while Nusra kept a few soldiers and a number of policemen.
On Saturday, Nusra released four soldiers and a policeman, all Sunnis, a source close to the group said. The circumstances of their release were not immediately clear.
The militants have demanded the release of Gomaa and several Islamists jailed since a 2007 insurrection by an al Qaeda-inspired group at a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon.