ARSAL, Lebanon: Residents in the northeastern town of Arsal Friday struggled to restore a sense of normalcy to the border region after days of heavy clashes as the Army beefed up security.
Dozens of families onboard cars and trucks were streaming back to the town in an attempt to check on their homes and the damage from five days of ferocious fighting between the Lebanese Army and Islamist militants from Syria.
“I left the town because I was worried about my children and I wanted to protect them from the fire,” a resident of Arsal said as he made his way from neighboring Labweh to his hometown.
An older woman, wearing a head scarf, praised the Army, hoping to return to her town in peace.
“God bless the Army!” she said.
But the military prevented many vehicles from entering Arsal and forced them to turn back, citing security concerns.
The Army, which has not yet deployed inside the town, boosted security in the border region in the early hours of the morning and arrested a sniper who had helped jihadists during their gunbattle with the military.
Soldiers erected a key checkpoint near the town’s infirmary, which was turned into a temporary base for the militants who overran Arsal Saturday after the arrest of a rebel commander by the Lebanese Army.
The Army is setting up posts in and around Arsal to protect the town against any new rebel attack and plans to wrest control over key roads that the rebels had used to enter Arsal, military sources told The Daily Star.
A security source said Mohammad Hujeiri, a local resident wanted on several warrants, was arrested for using the mosque to provide sniper cover for the jihadists, who overran the border town on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Husam al-Ghali, a member of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, said mediation efforts were underway to secure the release of dozens of soldiers and policemen taken hostage by the retreating militants.
The captives were supposed to have been released under the cease-fire deal reached Wednesday night that ended five days of fighting in Arsal.
The deal allowed for the transportation of wounded civilians out of the town and the entry of aid in exchange for the withdrawal of all militants from Arsal and the release of kidnapped soldiers.
Ghali said the scholars committee had sent an envoy to the militants Thursday to find out what their demands were.
“We were told that the captives are fine,” Ghali told The Daily Star.
Sixteen soldiers and over 50 militants were killed in the clashes, triggered by the Army’s arrest of a prominent Syrian commander who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
Nusra Front fighters withdrew Wednesday evening from the town while ISIS gunmen retreated to the other side of the border.