Truce in Lebanon's Arsal after army battles jihadists

AFP , Thursday 7 Aug 2014

Lebanese army soldiers escort ambulances believed to be carrying casualties as they return from the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley August 5, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Ambulances evacuated the wounded from Lebanon's Arsal Thursday and seven policeman were freed after a truce was announced to end fighting between jihadists and the army on the Syrian border.

The truce, announced on Wednesday night by Sunni clerics serving as mediators, has raised hopes of an end to the worst violence in the area since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.

At least 17 soldiers have been killed battling the jihadists, who are reportedly from several different extremist groups fighting in Syria.

Another 22 soldiers have been kidnapped, although three were freed on Wednesday.

On Thursday, a military source said the truce appeared to be holding and the situation in Arsal was quiet.

He said troops were combing the area in eastern Lebanon to see if gunmen were withdrawing under the terms of the truce.

During their advance, he added, soldiers had freed seven members of the police being held by the jihadists.

The seven were different from a group of some 20 other policemen still being held, who were captured when jihadists stormed a police post in Arsal on Saturday as the clashes erupted.

Medical services took advantage of the quiet to send in ambulances, with an emergency worker telling AFP that at least 34 wounded people had been evacuated.

At least three civilians have been confirmed killed, but the toll is believed to be much higher.

The UN agency for refugees UNHCR said earlier this week it had reports from field hospitals of at least 38 people killed and 268 wounded.

The fighting has prompted widespread concern in Lebanon, with the army and politicians urging the international community to offer assistance.

Army chief General Jean Kahwaji has urged France to speed up delivery of weapons being bought for the military by Saudi Arabia under a $3-billion deal announced last year.

And on Tuesday night, Lebanon's former prime minister Saad Hariri announced that Riyadh was pledging another $1 billion in funds that would be available immediately for the army and security forces.

The fighting began on Saturday, after soldiers detained a Syrian man accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

On Wednesday night, two Sunni clerics announced that a ceasefire would be in place until at least 7:00 pm (1600 GMT) Thursday after an agreement with Lebanon's prime minister, the army and "other concerned parties".

"Fighters in Arsal have started to head across the Lebanese border" into Syria, chief negotiator Sheikh Hossam al-Ghali said.

Another negotiator and fellow cleric, Samih Ezzedine, said: "We don't know how many there are and we have no way of verifying but the remaining armed men have undertaken to leave Arsal completely within 24 hours.

"They asked not to be shot at as they withdraw, and if that happens the whole agreement will be in jeopardy," he said.

"All the prisoners are alive and despite difficult negotiations we have clear and positive promises they will be released. I hope that will happen on Thursday."

The clashes in Arsal are the most serious violence in the volatile area since the Syrian conflict began.

Lebanon has sought to insulate itself from the raging war next door, but the conflict has regularly spilled over.

Lebanon currently hosts more than one million Syrian refugees, and the battle between Sunni-led rebels and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has stoked existing political and sectarian tensions.

Many of Lebanon's Sunnis, including the residents of Arsal, sympathise with the Syrian uprising.

But Lebanese Shiites tend to back Assad's regime, and the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah has sent its fighters across the border to bolster the embattled leader's forces.

The fighting in Arsal has caused a spike in tensions in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, where gunmen from the Sunni district of Bab el-Tebbaneh often fire at security forces and their neighbours from the Alawite community, to which Assad belongs.

On Wednesday night, a homemade explosive device detonated near an army post, killing a man and wounding six people, a security source said.

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