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Truce collapses, clashes renew in northeast Lebanon

Lebanese soldiers on armored vehicles drive toward Arsal, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

ARSAL, Lebanon: A temporary truce fell apart less than three hours after it was established when withdrawing militants targeted Lebanese Army posts on the hills surrounding the border village of Arsal, northeast Lebanon, a security source told The Daily Star.

The Army had agreed Tuesday evening to a 24-hour humanitarian cease-fire to allow the evacuation of wounded civilians and support ongoing efforts to release kidnapped soldiers held by militants in Arsal.

But clashes between the Army and Islamist militants flared up after the militants who were withdrawing from the town  targeted two Army posts located on the hills surrounding Arsal, the source said. The source said that despite the ceasefire the Army did not halt the shelling of the routes militants use to access the village.

The fresh clashes, however, will not scrap the agreement reached which stipulates the withdrawal of the gunmen outside the town to the mountainous areas, political and security sources confirmed to The Daily Star. These sources said the militants were still exiting the town despite the renewal of the clashes.

The cease-fire had gone into effect around 8 p.m., allowing Lebanese Red Cross ambulances to enter the town and transport wounded civilians to nearby hospitals, sources in the town told The Daily Star.

The Army approved a request by the Committee of Muslim Scholars, which has been mediating between jihadist groups and the Lebanese state, to restore calm to the northeastern town, overrun by militants from Syria, a security source said.

Sunni sheikhs with the committee informed the Army that their mission had been delayed after their convoy was attacked Monday evening, wounding three preachers.

An Army source said the military agreed to the “humanitarian cease-fire set to begin at 7 p.m. to evacuate the wounded and pave the way for the release of the remaining kidnapped soldiers.”

Earlier in the day, clashes between the Army and jihadists groups in Arsal intensified after efforts to broker a cease-fire failed to materialize, despite the release of some of the kidnapped policemen and soldiers.

The fighting has become more violent with the Army succeeding in surrounding gunmen from the northern and western sides of the town while Syrian regime troops were stationed on the border side of Arsal, a security source said.

The clashes were centered in Wadi Ata Valley, which rebel groups have used as a smuggling route for years and as a hideout in the recent battle with the Lebanese military, the source said.

Militants freed three policemen and three soldiers as part of efforts to reach a cease-fire deal to end four days of clashes between the Army and armed groups, who include members from the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

Despite the release of the men, the military pressed on with its military operation dubbed “Brandished Sword,” pounding militant hideouts with missiles and trying to regain control over two government buildings overrun by gunmen.

A delegation from the Committee of Muslim Scholars handed Army Intelligence personnel three members of the Internal Security Forces, who were identified as Khaled Solh, Mtanious Murad and Rammi Jamal, a security source told The Daily Star.

Minutes later, the committee also handed an intelligence unit three of the kidnapped soldiers on Ras al-Serj hill, which the military regained control over Monday night.

Militants said they were holding 38 policeman and soldiers since the clashes erupted Saturday afternoon, while the Army said Monday that 22 soldiers were missing in the northeastern town of Arsal.

The release was a "goodwill gesture" to allow the group of Lebanese Sunni Muslim clerics to strike a deal to end the fighting, a militant source told Reuters.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam said Lebanon would not accept any political solution to end the clashes in Arsal, demanding the release of kidnapped soldiers and the withdrawal of jihadists from the border town.

Militants say they were willing to withdraw if the army agreed to return to manning checkpoints outside Arsal and not to enter the town itself, Reuters reported.

Two soldiers were killed during overnight clashes with Islamist militants around Arsal after three members of a delegation of the Committee of Muslim Scholars were wounded as they tried to mediate a cease-fire.

The soldiers' deaths raise the toll to 16, with at least 50 militants and nine civilians also killed in the clashes. A Lebanese Army statement identified the fatalities as Capt. Danny Fouad Khairallah and Pvt. Ali Mohammad Khodaro.

Prominent Sunni Sheikh Salem Rafei and Sheikh Nabih al-Halabi were slightly wounded when their car came under fire shortly before midnight. A third member of the delegation, Jalal Kalash, was critically wounded and taken to a Beirut hospital.

The source said Rafei and Halabi were treated at Arsal's infirmary. However, after midday, the Lebanese Red Cross escorted Rafei out of Arsal after his wound became infected.

The humanitarian conditions in the border town have worsened since the clashes erupted over the weekend after the military arrested a prominent Syrian military commander.

Sources inside Arsal complained that medical and food supply was scarce and that medics were unable to transport wounded civilians outside the town given heavy shelling and clashes.

Most of the town’s residents and Syrian refugees were able to evacuate, some with the help of the Lebanese Army who helped transport them to the nearby village of Labweh.

Meanwhile, the Army grew suspicious of eight Syrians in Labweh near a police station and arrested them, the National News Agency said.

The military confiscated their black Range Rover, which contained empty wooden boxes.

 

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Summary

A temporary truce fell apart less than three hours after it was established when withdrawing militants targeted Lebanese Army posts on the hills surrounding the border village of Arsal, northeast Lebanon, a security source told The Daily Star.

The Army had agreed Tuesday evening to a 24-hour humanitarian cease-fire to allow the evacuation of wounded civilians and support ongoing efforts to release kidnapped soldiers held by militants in Arsal.

But clashes between the Army and Islamist militants flared up after the militants who were withdrawing from the town targeted two Army posts located on the hills surrounding Arsal, the source said.

Minutes later, the committee also handed an intelligence unit three of the kidnapped soldiers on Ras al-Serj hill, which the military regained control over Monday night.

Militants said they were holding 38 policeman and soldiers since the clashes erupted Saturday afternoon, while the Army said Monday that 22 soldiers were missing in the northeastern town of Arsal.

Two soldiers were killed during overnight clashes with Islamist militants around Arsal after three members of a delegation of the Committee of Muslim Scholars were wounded as they tried to mediate a cease-fire.


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