BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army tightened its grip around Arsal Thursday after Islamist militants withdrew from the northeastern town, taking with them captive soldiers, according to officials.
Meanwhile, Cabinet approved the recruitment of 11,000 security personnel in a major boost for the Army in its battle against terrorism.
A cease-fire went into effect Thursday, ending five days of ferocious fighting between the Army and Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in and around Arsal, in the most serious fallout of Syria’s war into Lebanese territory. The truce, brokered by mediators from the Committee of Muslim Scholars, allowed troops to free seven soldiers and ambulances to evacuate wounded people.
Despite the truce, clashes between troops and militants continued on the outskirts of Arsal, a senior military official told The Daily Star Thursday night. The official said the situation in Arsal was calm, adding that the Army has not yet entered the town.
The cease-fire allowed armed groups, which 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), to retreat to rugged mountainous outskirts near the Syrian border.
At least 17 soldiers have been killed in the clashes, while 19 are still missing, along with an unknown number of policemen, believed to be held by the militants.
More than 60 militants and 42 civilians were also killed. Among the civilian fatalities, 30 bodies were found at a burnt tent in Arsal, residents said.
Muslim religious figures said they would negotiate for the release of the remaining soldiers and policemen held captive by the militants after their retreat from Arsal.
Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi, who along with other security chiefs attended a Cabinet meeting, told the ministers the militants had completely withdrawn from Arsal.
Kahwagi also briefed the Cabinet on Army measures to defeat the militants and restore security to the town, according to Information Minister Ramzi Joreige.
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi told The Daily Star after the Cabinet session that “Arsal has become free of gunmen. We have moved from a dangerous stage to a new stage that could be difficult, but less dangerous than the previous one.”
On his way out of the Grand Serail, Kahwagi told reporters: “The Army’s military position in Arsal is very good.” He added that the Army and ISF captives had been taken out of Arsal by the militants from the onset of the battles.
At its meeting chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, the Cabinet agreed to recruit another 11,000 personnel for the Lebanese Army and other security forces in a bid to bolster the capabilities of security agencies, in light of the fighting in Arsal.
Cabinet approved the recruitment of 5,000 soldiers for the Lebanese Army, along with 369 student officers and 200 soldiers, Joreige told reporters after the Cabinet session.“The Cabinet agreed to amend a previous government decision and raise the number of recruits to 4,000 for the Internal Security Forces, 500 for State Security, 500 second-degree inspectors and 500 personnel for General Security,” he said.
Speaker Nabih Berri called for the deployment of the Army inside Arsal and for it to be the only entity entrusted with the town’s security and distribution of relief aid. “It turned out that a number of the town’s residents had cooperated with the gunmen. The law should be applied upon those people,” Berri was quoted by visitors as saying.
He strongly rejected any negotiations with “terrorist gunmen” to exchange the captive soldiers with Islamists held at Roumieh prison.
Earlier Thursday, Arsal saw the entry of aid convoys, the first humanitarian supply since clashes erupted between the Army and militants from Syria.
The Committee of Muslim Scholars, which has mediated the cease-fire agreement to end the fighting, said negotiations were ongoing to release captured soldiers and security forces personnel held by the militants.
Speaking to reporters on Arsal’s outskirts, Sheikh Muhieddine Nisbeh, a member of the negotiating party, said the committee had lost contact with the militants after fleeing the town and that the group was waiting for the gunmen to contact them.
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.
The Nusra Front, whose fighters withdrew from Arsal Wednesday evening, said it had released six security personnel it had captured in a sign of “good faith,” without specifying a timeframe for the release of the rest of the hostages.
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. Before ISIS militants withdrew, Army commandos killed 17 jihadists in a 90-minute battle that ended shortly after midnight, security sources said. The latest fatalities upped the militant death toll to 67.
After the militants’ withdrawal, seven missing policemen were found. – Additional reporting by Rakan al-Fakih and Nidal al-Solh