ARSAL, Lebanon: Dozens of families streamed back into Arsal Friday to survey the damage after five days of clashes between the Lebanese Army and militants brought chaos to the northern frontier town.
But the fate of 19 Army soldiers and several other Internal Security Forces personnel kidnapped by fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front was unclear as the military reinforced its positions Friday and barred journalists from entering the town, citing security concerns.
Quoting a security source, Reuters reported that the militants had sent the Lebanese government a list of 20 Islamist prisoners that they wanted freed in an exchange for releasing their hostages. The list includes Imad Ahmad Joumaa, whose arrest triggered the clashes, the source said.
But a government source later denied that a list had been sent to authorities, Reuters reported.
A preacher involved in the negotiations to release the kidnapped security personnel told The Daily Star that they were more complicated than previously imagined.
Sheikh Adnan Amama, a member of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, which is overseeing efforts to free the kidnapped men, said one of the main demands by the militants was a guarantee that the refugee camps inside Arsal would be safe.
“We are trying as much as we can to obtain assurances from officials and the Lebanese government that the camps would remain safe once the captives are released,” he said.
Amama also said that the kidnapped soldiers and security forces personnel were distributed between Nusra Front and ISIS.
“They have not yet told us their full demands and we are still waiting for them to finalize what they want and deliver that to us officially.”
The Army turned back some families who were hoping to return to their homes after days of displacement following the militant takeover of the strategic town.
“We want to go back to our homes,” a resident of Arsal said as he made his way home along the stretch of road from nearby Labweh with his wife and four children. He added that a family in the town had told him it was safe to return.
“It was tragic, but without the children we would not have left the town,” said his wife. “We were terrified for the children.”
“I left the town because I was worried about my children and I wanted to protect them,” another resident of Arsal said as he made his way from neighboring Labweh to his hometown.
An older woman, standing in a pickup truck with her relatives, praised the Army.
“I hope they return safely to their mothers and families,” she said.
Army soldiers flashed victory signs at journalists as they drove back on armored vehicles away from Arsal. But the military prevented many cars from entering the town and forced them to turn back, citing security concerns.
“We entered Arsal and no one can prevent us from being in Arsal,” Gen. Jean Kahwagi, the Army chief, told reporters after attending a meeting of top security officials with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Grand Serail. He said he believed that the captured soldiers were now outside Arsal.
The Army 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, 2 km from the town center, which was turned into a temporary base for the militants who overran Arsal after the arrest of a rebel commander.
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 the town, military sources told The Daily Star.
In a statement, the Army confirmed the deployment near the infirmary and said it was positioned on hills overlooking the town on its western border.
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 Saturday.
The deal that led to the cease-fire, mediated by the Committee of Muslim Scholars, allowed for the transportation of wounded civilians out of Arsal and the entry of necessary aid in exchange for the withdrawal of gunmen from Arsal and the release of the captives.
“The militants could not withdraw and release the captives because they thought they needed a cover for their retreat ... so they handed over six in batches in a sign of goodwill,” Amama said.
Although the committee lost direct contact with the militants, Amama said a group of people was mediating between the two parties. He said he also did not want to risk the lives of the mediators, who would have to meet the militants in person in the mountainous outskirts of Arsal to negotiate.
Seventeen soldiers and over 50 militants were killed in the clashes.
Nusra Front fighters withdrew from the town Wednesday evening, while ISIS gunmen retreated to the other side of the border.
A doctor based in Arsal said his hospital had treated roughly 400 wounded civilians. Many of the wounded were Syrian refugees in informal settlements in the town, who feared reprisals after the clashes, he said.
Bakr Hujeiri, the Future Movement’s official in Arsal, told The Daily Star that residents were angry and felt they were “stabbed in the back” by some who sought refuge in the town. He said that some militants had emerged from refugee camps in Arsal and taken advantage of the town’s generosity toward those displaced by the war in Syria.
Hujeiri said the refugee camps in the town should be relocated to the border region.
A statement by Arsal residents said they sought coexistence with their neighbors and wanted to remove the effects of the “black cloud and dark strife” that had struck the town. – Additional reporting by Nidal al-Solh and Rakan al-Fakih