Lebanese troops Wednesday fought heavy battles with ISIS jihadists who have insisted on keeping up the fight despite a large number of Nusra Front militants withdrawing from the northeastern border town of Arsal.
Security sources told The Daily Star that the clashes were centered around Wadi Sweid and Wadi Hosn, the farthest east points in Arsal close to the border with Syria, and at Ras al-Sarj, the main entrance to the town.
They said the gunbattles pitted Lebanese troops against jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), particularly those groups loyal to Ahmad Jomaa, the Syrian national whose arrest by the Lebanese Army over the weekend triggered the battle in Arsal.
Jomaa had been a member of the Nusra Front until he recently pledged allegiance to ISIS, the sources said.
Several local officials – including security sources, Arsal's deputy mayor and the Future Movement – confirmed that the majority of Islamist militants from the Nusra Front withdrew from the Bekaa Valley hamlet overnight.
The armed groups were split over attempts to end the fighting. While Nusra Front wanted to leave Arsal and move to the outskirts, ISIS insisted on staying to continue fighting the army, the sources said.
A delegation from the Committee of Muslim Scholars, which negotiatied an ill-fated cease-fire Tuesday and the handover of soldiers held captive by the militants, is expected to visit Arsal again Wednesday to resume mediation efforts to end the fighting.
Arsal’s Future Movement official Bakr Hujeiri told The Daily Star earlier that negotiations were ongoing toward a complete withdrawal and the handover of Lebanese soldiers held captive by the militants.
A total of 38 security forces - 22 soldiers and 19 policemen from the Internal Security Forces - were missing after jihadists from Syria overran Arsal on Saturday. Three members of the Internal Security Forces were handed over Tuesday.
According to a security source, there is a decent chance that some abducted soldiers will be released Wednesday.
The Committee of Muslim Scholars underlined the need for a negotiated truce.
"It is important to keep working on this [cease-fire] initiative because it is the only solution that could end the bloodshed, particularly of innocent civilians,” head of the Muslim Scholars Committee Sheikh Salem Jdeideh said after visiting fellow member Sheikh Salem Rafei at hospital.
Rafei and two other members of the Scholars Committee were wounded when their vehicle came under attack as they entered Arsal Monday night to negotiate a truce.
Rafei, however, was taken to hospital in the northern city of Tripoli Tuesday after the wound in his leg became infected.
Clashes between jihadists and Lebanese troops raged until the early morning hours in Arsal after militants targeted several military posts, shattering a temporary cease-fire mediated by the Muslim Scholars.
Security sources said machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades were used in the fighting which dwindled at daybreak.
Lebanese army fired artillery shells to repel militant attacks, the sources told The Daily Star.
Sheikh Mohammad Hujeiri, who is following up on mediation efforts, accused Hezbollah of hindering the militants’ withdrawal.
“Gunmen were preparing to pull out, but their mission was obstructed when Hezbollah, backed the Lebanese army, shelled the town,” Hujeiri told The Daily Star.
He said the jihadists expressed willingness to withdraw once a cease-fire goes into effect.
The Lebanese army agreed to a 24-hour humanitarian cease-fire to allow the evacuation of wounded civilians from Arsal and support ongoing efforts to release kidnapped soldiers held by Islamist militants.
The cease-fire, which lasted nearly three hours, allowed Lebanese Red Cross ambulances to enter the town and transport wounded civilians to nearby hospitals, sources in Arsal told The Daily Star.
A convoy carrying vital humanitarian supplies for thousands of needy people left Chtaura after midday to head to Arsal, the first aid convoy since the fighting broke out five days ago.
The death toll the Arsal clashes stands at 17 soldiers, 50 militants and 12 civilians killed, according to a security source.
By Rakan Al-Fakih, Nidal Al-Solh
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