Ceasefire in Lebanon border town extended
A ceasefire between the Lebanese army and Islamist militants fighting near the Syrian border was extended on Wednesday for 24 hours, Reuters reported Muslim clerics mediating between the sides as saying.
Three Lebanese soldiers taken captive by the militants had been released, the clerics said in a televised news conference, adding that the militants had started withdrawing from the eastern border town of Arsal.
The clerics would also start negotiating the release of the remaining 27 soldiers and 17 policemen held captives.
Fighting between the Lebanese army and Islamic extremists from neighboring Syria erupted again on Wednesday after a negotiated truce collapsed overnight.
Officials said the militants in Arsal belong to Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, and the more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, alongside other smaller Syrian rebel brigades.
The initial truce, brokered on Tuesday, was meant to end days of fighting in Arsal and allow for negotiations for the release of captive Lebanese soldiers.
But clashes broke out when the Syrian militants opened fire on Lebanese troops early Wednesday and then spread through the predominantly Sunni town, The Associated Press reported.
Ambulances were seen rushing in and out of the town and the boom of artillery and crackling gunfire echoed from a nearby mountain.
Delegation of clerics
Later in the morning, a delegation of Sunni clerics entered the town to try to mediate a new ceasefire, said Sheik Raed Hleihel from the Association of Muslim Scholars and a Syrian activist who uses the name Ahmad Alqusair. The two were not part of the delegation Wednesday but were in Arsal for previous negotiations.
Fighting in Arsal first began on Saturday when militants from Syria overran the town, which lies near the border with Syria. They seized Lebanese army positions and captured a number of soldiers and policemen, demanding the release of a prominent Syrian rebel commander, Imad Ahmad Jomaa, who was arrested in Lebanon earlier on Saturday.
Hleihel, the Sunni cleric, said the militants are demanding Jomaa’s release. He was initially reported to be a member of the Nusra Front, but later, activists said he had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
According to activist Alqusair, the militants also wanted representation on a council overseeing town affairs in Arsal, which the rebels have used as a base for launching attacks into Syria.
Army surrounds Arsal
Lebanon’s army surrounded Arsal on Wednesday, arresting men and evacuating refugees as the most serious spillover of Syria’s civil war onto Lebanese soil lurched into its fifth day.
A Syrian refugee brought out by troops from the hill town of Arsal said she had seen fighters’ bodies lying in the streets.
“We saw death with our own eyes,” Mariam Seifeddin, a 35-year-old mother of nine, who said she had sheltered with about 50 others in a single room without food or water for three days amid intense fighting, told Reuters.
Political sources told Reuters that the army was not planning to immediately retake Arsal but to evacuate civilians. A security official and a doctor in Arsal said many militants had now fled for surrounding mountains following the army bombardment.
Women, children held
Meanwhile, a leading rights group called on rebels in Syria to “immediately release” 54 women and children they have held hostage since the rebels seized their villages last year.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that the women and children were likely taken because they are Alawite, members of a Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad also belongs, and that the rebels were likely seeking to exchange them for opposition fighters captured by the government.
Lebanon’s former prime minister, meanwhile, announced that Saudi Arabia is granting another $1 billion in aid to the Lebanese army to support its fight against militants.