ARSAL, Lebanon: A temporary cease-fire in Arsal was shattered late Tuesday night after two Army posts on hills overlooking the Bekaa town came under fire by militants, putting the truce attempts in jeopardy, security sources said.
As The Daily Star went to press, clashes raged in the border town after militants targeted the Army posts. Soldiers opened fire on routes used by the gunmen to access the embattled town, the sources said.
The Lebanese Army agreed to a 24-hour humanitarian cease-fire to allow the evacuation of wounded civilians from Arsal and support ongoing efforts to release kidnapped soldiers held by Islamist militants.
The cease-fire, which lasted nearly three hours, allowed Lebanese Red Cross ambulances to enter the town and transport wounded civilians to nearby hospitals, sources in Arsal told The Daily Star.
The truce, which followed four days of fierce fighting between the Army and Islamist militants, came as Saudi King Abdullah pledged to speed up the delivery of military assistance to the Lebanese Army under a Saudi-sponsored deal with France, hours after Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi urged Paris to quickly deliver the weapons.
France said it would move quickly to answer the call for faster arms deliveries. “ France is fully committed to supporting the Lebanese Army, a pillar of stability and unity in Lebanon,” France’s deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Vincent Floreani said, according to AFP. “We are in close contact with our partners to quickly meet Lebanon’s needs.”
The Army approved the truce 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 last week, a security source told The Daily Star.
The Muslim Scholars informed the government that gunmen would withdraw from Arsal at dawn Wednesday, the source said.
Still, the armed groups were split over attempts to end the fighting. While some groups wanted to leave Arsal and move to the outskirts, others insisted on staying to continue fighting the Army, the 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.
King Abdullah, speaking by phone with former President Michel Sleiman, voiced his country’s support for the Lebanese Army to confront terrorism, while condemning acts he said were not related to Islam or human values.
He also stressed that he was determined to speed up the implementation of the exceptional support for the military, pledged last year.
Saudi Arabia last year granted the Lebanese Army $3 billion in military equipment to be bought from France. Kahwagi had earlier urged France to speed up the delivery of weapons under the $3 billion deal, stressing their importance in ending the “dangerous” clashes with militants in Arsal.
“This battle requires equipment, materiel and technology that the Army doesn’t have,” Kahwagi told AFP. “That’s why we need to speed up the delivery of the necessary military aid by finalizing the list of weapons requested from France under a Saudi-financed deal backed by the Rome conference to support the Army.”
Kahwagi warned that the situation in Arsal was “dangerous,” pledging to continue the fight against the militants to free the 22 missing soldiers.
Another promise of support for the Army came in a conference in Rome last June with the international community vowing to enhance Lebanon’s military capacities. However, the Army has not yet been supplied with any equipment, waiting for the finalization of the list of needs.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri threw his weight behind the Army. “We announce today that the Army’s battle against terrorism is the battle of all the Lebanese who believe in the state, its legitimacy and institutions,” Hariri said in a statement. “We will be a strong political backer of the Army.”
He rejected the militants’ pretext of Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria to attack Lebanon. “As much as we refuse that any armed group uses Hezbollah’s participation in the fighting in Syria as an excuse to violate Lebanese sovereignty and attack the Lebanese Army,” Hariri explained, “we will not, under any pretext, provide cover for Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict contrary to all the rules of sovereignty and national consensus.”
Speaker Nabih Berri called for providing the Lebanese Army with financial, military and logistical assistance to help it fight terrorism. He praised the Saudi king’s readiness to support the Army.
Berri was quoted by visitors as saying he had told the American, Saudi and European Union ambassadors that their countries must back the Army and fulfill Kahwagi’s demands for financial, military and logistical assistance. “We are today in another battle, against terrorism,” Berri told visitors.
Praising Hariri’s stance on the fighting in Arsal as “good,” Berri said: “What concerns me is supporting the Army in men and in arms.”
Earlier in the day, clashes between the Army and militants 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 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 Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Despite the release of the men, the military pressed on with its operation dubbed “Brandished Sword,” pounding militant hideouts with missiles and trying to regain control over two government buildings overrun by gunmen.
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 Arsal.
Two soldiers were killed during overnight clashes with militants around Arsal after three members of the Committee of Muslim Scholars were wounded as they tried to mediate a cease-fire. The soldiers’ deaths raised the toll to 16, with at least 50 militants and 12 civilians also killed in the clashes.
Separately, the Information Branch raided a house in the north Lebanon village of Tannourine and arrested three people with documents and IDs issued by ISIS.