ARSAL, Lebanon: Aid convoys entered Arsal Thursday, the first humanitarian supply since clashes erupted between the Army and militants from Syria, who withdrew from the embattled northeastern border town earlier in the day.
The Committee of Muslim Scholars, which has mediated a cease-fire to end the fighting in the town, said negotiations were ongoing to release captured soldiers and security forces personnel held by jihadists since clashes erupted over the weekend.
Speaking to reporters on the outskirts of the town, Sheikh Muhieddine Nisbeh, a member of the negotiating party, said the committee had lost contact with the militants after fleeing Arsal and that the group was waiting for the gunmen to contact them.
“The group exited Arsal into some mountainous area, which probably does not have good [phone] reception,” Nisbeh said. “We are waiting for the group to contact us so we can figure out a way to negotiate with them to release the rest of the security forces.”
The sheikh said the kidnapped security personnel were in good health.
The deal that ended the clashes allowed for the transportation of wounded civilians outside the town and the entry of needed aid in exchange for the release of captured soldiers and the withdrawal of militants.
Nusra Front, whose fighters withdraw from Arsal Wednesday evening, said it had released six security personnel it had captured as a sign of “good will,” without specifying a timeframe for the release of the rest of the hostages.
"We left the town of Arsal after we received assurances that the residents would not be harmed. We handed over six captives as a sign of good will and the rest have a special case that we will later reveal,” the radical Al-Qaeda-linked group said on its Twitter feed.
Video footage of Arsal shows bullet-riddled homes, glass shattered along the streets and Syrian refugee tents burned to the ground. The Army has not yet deployed inside the border town, but soldiers in armored personnel carriers and tanks were seen patrolling its outskirts.
Three trucks carrying food and medical supplies made their way through the town accompanied by military vehicles and soldiers, a security source told The Daily Star, while the Lebanese Red Cross said ambulances had transported 44 wounded civilians from Arsal to nearby hospitals.
Elite Army units combed the Arsal region, including its outskirts, where heavy clashes between the military and jihadists raged for five days, killing 17 soldiers, in the worst Syria-linked violence in the country since 2011.
Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi told the Cabinet in a meeting with other security commanders that the situation in Arsal was under control and that the town was now free of jihadists.
After stepping out of the meeting, Kahwagi told reporters that the Lebanese captives had been taken out of Arsal by the militants on the first day of clashes. A total of 38 members of security forces - 22 Lebanese soldiers and 19 policemen - were taken captive by militants who overran Arsal Saturday following the arrest of a Syrian rebel commander, Imad Jomaa, by the Lebanese Army.
Lebanon’s Cabinet agreed to recruit a little over 11,000 personnel for the Lebanese Army and other security forces to boost the capabilities of security agencies particularly the Army.
The military has been working to restore order in Arsal since the early hours of the morning, with a number of missing policemen turning up and efforts underway to secure the release of the rest.
Before the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria withdrew, Army commandos killed 17 jihadists in a 90-minute battle that ended shortly after midnight, security sources said Thursday. The latest fatalities upped the militant death toll from the Arsal battle to 67.
Twelve civilians have been killed in the fighting.
The sources said groups loyal to Jomaa pulled out toward Syria Thursday following clashes with Lebanese troops around Wadi Sweid and Wadi Hosn, the farthest east points in Arsal, close to the border.
After the militants' withdrawal, seven missing policemen were found.
Security sources said the Lebanese Army found three members of the Internal Security Forces at a house in Arsal. Around 8:30 a.m., another four ISF members turned up at a Lebanese Army checkpoint in the Ain al-Shuob neighborhood at the town's entrance.
Local officials as well as security sources said the situation was quiet in Arsal after the withdrawal of the militants. The Army is carrying out operations around the town to verify the complete withdrawal of militants before entering the town itself.
Journalists who had gathered at Ain al-Shuob checkpoint Thursday morning were told by the Army to leave as troops were mopping up in the opposite highlands of Ras al-Sarj, where heavy fighting was reported the day before.
The Syrian regime launched airstrikes on the outskirts of Arsal Thursday morning, with Al-Mayadeen reporting that dozens of fleeing rebels were wounded when militant hideouts along the border were targeted.