Lebanese army regains Arsal control but still waits for hostage release
The Lebanese Army Saturday redeployed in checkpoints that were overran by militants a week ago during clashes with the gunmen in the northeastern town of Arsal, as relatives of kidnapped soldiers and security forces issued a personal call for their release.
Thirty-five military vehicles, including two tanks, drove through Arsal 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.
The five-day ferocious clashes between the Army and militants erupted on Aug. 2 - killing 16 soldiers and over 50 gunmen - over the arrest of a prominent Syrian commander. Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi has said that fighting was a premeditated attack on the military.
Despite the withdrawal of fighters from 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.
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 with 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 there were waiting for the kidnappers to deliver a final list of their demands.
ISIS and the Nusra Front were behind the abductions, with some media reports saying that the purpose behind the kidnappings were to use them as an exchange for Islamist inmates in Roumieh Prison.
Sheikh Adnan Amama told The Daily Star Friday that one of the militants’ main demand was a guarantee that once the soldiers are freed, the Syrian refugee camps in Arsal would remain safe.
Some of the camps in the town were heavily damaged after they were burnt to the ground during the clashes, which forced many Syrians to flee to neighboring villages while others sought refuge back to their home country.