ARSAL, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army entered Arsal Saturday and redeployed in checkpoints that had been overrun by militants a week ago, as relatives of kidnapped soldiers and security forces issued a personal call for their release.
Thirty-five military vehicles, including two tanks, drove through the northeastern town in the afternoon, making their way to Aqabat al-Mebyaah in Wadi al-Hosn, an Army post that militants took over on the first day of fighting, as well as Sayadeye among other posts.
Soldiers as well as members of the Internal Security Forces were seen patrolling some of the town’s streets, inspecting military buildings that were heavily damaged during the fighting.
Backed by armored vehicles, Army rangers and ISF elite units returned to a bullet-riddled police station in the town, where ISF members had been kidnapped, as they assessed the damage.
Some residents greeted Army soldiers as they passed through the town, while children climbed on top of tanks in celebration of what officials said was the liberation of the town from militants.
The five-day ferocious clashes between the Army and militants erupted on Aug. 2 - killing 17 soldiers and over 50 gunmen - over the arrest of Syrian militant commander Ahmad Jomaa. Another soldier succumbed to injuries Saturday, bringing the toll to 18. Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi has said the fighting was a premeditated attack on the military.
Despite the withdrawal of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front - some of whom resided in Syrian refugee camps in Arsal - and the cease-fire that allowed the entry of needed aid into the town, militants are still holding 25 hostages: 17 members of the Internal Security Forces and 8 soldiers, according to a security source.
Meanwhile, a number of relatives of the captured soldiers and members of the ISF held a protest along the international highway near Drous roundabout in Baalbek, calling for the release of their loved ones.
"We want our children back, Sunnis, Christians and Shiites," the relatives chanted as they carried Lebanese flags.
The head of the Taraya municipality, Mayor Mahdeh Hamdeye, thanked the Committee of Muslim Scholars and Arsal residents for trying to negotiate a release of the captives.
"We have brotherly ties with Arsal residents, but a strange element surfaced and kidnapped our children. All we want is their release and we don't have any animosity toward Arsal,” he said.
The Committee of Muslim Scholars, which mediated the cease-fire and is overseeing talks to release the captured soldiers, has said that it is waiting for the kidnappers to deliver a final list of demands.
ISIS and the Nusra Front were behind the abductions, with some media reports saying that the purpose behind the kidnappings was to use the hostages as an exchange for Islamist inmates in Roumieh Prison.
Sheikh Adnan Amama told The Daily Star Friday that one of the militants’ main demands was a guarantee that once the soldiers were freed, the Syrian refugee camps in Arsal would remain safe.
Some of the camps in the town were heavily damaged after they were burned to the ground during the clashes, which forced many Syrians to flee to neighboring villages while others sought to return to their home country.