ARSAL, Lebanon: The conflagration in Arsal appeared close to a conclusion Wednesday as militants began their withdrawal under a cease-fire agreement with the Lebanese Army that came after a four-day siege aimed at liberating the northeastern border town.
Fighters who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, an Al-Qaeda splinter group, agreed to leave Arsal and head back into the mountainous outskirts near the Syrian frontier by 7 p.m. Thursday, in a deal brokered by mediators from the Committee of Muslim Scholars, a security source told The Daily Star.
But angry protesters blocked roads in the Bekaa Valley, the north and Beirut Wednesday evening on the call of the committee, accusing the Army of violating the agreement by shelling militants in Arsal.
The protests also came after residents of the village of Labweh prevented an aid convoy from entering Arsal under the pretext that it would fall in the hands of ISIS militants.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Sheikh Adnan Amama, a member of the committee, said that roads would only be opened when aid was delivered to Arsal, the wounded civilians evacuated and the Army stopped shelling the town. The Army stresses that it is adhering to the agreement and only responding to fire targeting its positions.
Maj. Gen. Mohammad Kheir, the secretary-general of the Higher Relief Committee, said the group was ready to deliver aid to Arsal as of Thursday morning. He said that the process would take place under the instructions of Prime Minister Tammam Salam and in coordination with the Army.
A military source confirmed that some militants withdrew from Arsal Wednesday evening.
In return, the armed groups demanded assurances by the Army that Syrian refugees in Arsal would be safe from any “revenge” attacks after their withdrawal, according to the source.
“Today we began resolving the issue,” the committee announced at a news conference in the town of Ras Baalbek, a few kilometers away from Arsal. “We can reach happy conclusions if things continue as they are.”
At the news conference, committee sheikhs confirmed the terms of the agreement, announcing that the militants had pledged not to harm captured soldiers and promised to turn them over, adding that Syrian and Lebanese civilians were a “red line” that would not be harmed after the withdrawal.
The announcement came as the Army appeared to tighten the noose further on the militants, who launched a surprise, coordinated offensive Saturday to occupy the town, which supports the Syrian opposition fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
It also came as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a $1 billion pledge from Saudi Arabia to improve the capabilities of the Lebanese military in the battle against terrorism.
After reaching the agreement, the sheikhs who negotiated it left the town with three released Army soldiers. The men were identified as Bilal Ezzeddine, Wassim al-Hujeiri and a man from the Obeid family from Sir Dinnieh.
There are now 17 ISF personnel and 10 Army soldiers held by the militants in Arsal, according to the Committee of Muslim Scholars.
A security source told The Daily Star that three additional Army soldiers were released Tuesday, but no announcement was made at the time.
A cautious calm prevailed in Arsal during the day despite heavy battles between the Lebanese Army and ISIS militants Wednesday before the truce was announced.
Militants fired on cars and lightly wounded a woman as she attempted to flee with her family from the besieged town.
Footage released by Al-Jadeed TV showed veiled militants in Arsal taking part in the battles and chanting Islamist slogans.
Some families left their homes to find food and other necessities at the few shops that opened their doors during the day.
Sources said the gunbattles pitted Lebanese troops against jihadists, particularly those groups loyal to Imad Jomaa, the Syrian national whose arrest by the Lebanese Army over the weekend triggered the battle in Arsal.
Jomaa had been a member of the Nusra Front until he recently pledged allegiance to ISIS, the sources said.
Several local officials as well as security sources confirmed that the majority of Islamist militants from the Nusra Front withdrew from the Bekaa Valley hamlet overnight.
The armed groups were split over attempts to end the fighting. While Nusra Front wanted to leave Arsal and move to the outskirts, ISIS insisted on staying to continue fighting the Army, the sources said.
The conflict between the militant factions is a new development that threw a wrench into cease-fire negotiations, since jihadist factions in the area had generally cooperated in recent weeks as they sought to fight what they saw as a common enemy in the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah. The two were reportedly planning a coordinated offensive against militants based in the hills surrounding Arsal.
A delegation from the committee had negotiated an ill-fated cease-fire Tuesday, which was breached by an attack on an Army base in the evening.
“It is important to keep working on this [cease-fire] initiative because it is the only solution that could end the bloodshed, particularly of innocent civilians,” said head of the committee Sheikh Malek Jdeideh.
The death toll from the Arsal clashes stands at 17 soldiers, 50 militants and 12 civilians, according to a security source.