ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF ARSAL: Lebanon’s army surrounded a border town occupied by militants on Wednesday as mediators reported progress in negotiations to end to the most serious spillover of Syria’s civil war yet onto Lebanese soil.
Soldiers arrested men and evacuated refugees from the hill town of Arsal on the border with Syria. One Syrian refugee said she had seen fighters’ bodies lying in the streets.
“We saw death with our own eyes,” said Mariam Seifeddin, a 35-year-old mother of nine, who said she had sheltered with about 50 others in a single room without food or water for three days amid intense fighting.
Saudi Arabian King Abdullah granted $1 billion (594.07 million British pound) to help the Lebanese army bolster security as they battle militants in Arsal on the Syrian frontier.
Earlier, machine gun fire and shelling on the outskirts of the town breached the 24-hour truce, which came into force at on Tuesday and was extended on Wednesday evening, according to Sunni Muslim clerics mediating between the combatants.
Political sources said the army was not planning immediately to retake Arsal but to evacuate civilians. A security official and a doctor in Arsal said many militants had fled into the surrounding mountains following the army bombardment.
Arsal is the first major incursion into Lebanon by hardline Sunni militants - leading players in Sunni-Shia violence unfolding across the Levant - which threatens the stability of Lebanon by inflaming its own sectarian tensions. While Lebanon has officially tried to distance itself from Syria’s conflict, the country’s powerful Shia movement, Hezbollah, has sent fighters to aid President Bashar al-Assad.
Dozens of armoured-personnel carriers and tanks were seen on the road heading towards the area. Lebanese special forces were also being deployed on Wednesday, arriving at the nearby town of al-Labwa, where hundreds of soldiers are stationed.
Around 30 prisoners with their hands tied behind their backs were driven out of the town on an army truck. Most were young men, many were wearing red kaffiyeh headscarves.
Members of the Muslim Clerics Asssociation said three captive soldiers had been released, militants had started to withdraw and the ceasefire had been extended for 24 hours.
“They pledged to withdraw from Arsal and the news we received is that they started pulling out,” Sheikh Houssam al-Ghali told a televised news conference.
The clerics said they would start negotiating the release of 27 members of the security forces still being held in the town - 10 soldiers and 17 policemen. That is some 10 fewer than the number cited by officials.
At least 17 soldiers have been killed in the violence. Reports from inside the town suggest dozens of civilians and militants have been killed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria’s war, said it had confirmed that at least 41 people had been killed in Arsal, including at least 14 civilians.
The militants have been identified by officials as members of the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, and of the Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria.
Rebel sources told Reuters several members of the Islamic State had been killed in the fighting, including senior leader Abu Hassan al-Homsi.
Local officials in Arsal said it was completely surrounded by the army apart from a corridor apparently left for gunmen who want to retreat.
The town was the first stop for many civilians fleeing the bloodshed in Syria. Refugee camps in Arsal that provide shelter to tens of thousands of Syrians who fled the war have been badly damaged in the fighting, forcing refugees to seek shelter in the town itself, Syrian activists in the area have said.
Qassem al-Zein, a Syrian doctor at the field hospital in Arsal said militants “wanted to leave since yesterday but they haven’t been able to because of the shelling.”
“The important thing is to stop the shelling. The wounded and dead are still coming. Since this morning we’ve had 30 wounded, all from shelling and snipers. All civilians,” he said.
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