Naharnet

Army Retakes Posts in Arsal, Says 10 Troops Killed as 'Humanitarian Truce' Reportedly Reached

Fierce clashes between the army and armed groups in the eastern border region of Arsal continued into a second day on Sunday as the army announced that 10 of its troops have been killed and 25 others wounded.

In the evening, a humanitarian truce was reportedly reached between the army and the gunmen following efforts by the Muslim Scholars Committee.

“A truce has been reached in Arsal and it went into effect at 9:00 p.m.,” LBCI TV quoted the Committee as saying.

“The Army Command has made several demands to agree on the truce, including the handing over of all missing troops,” LBCI reported.

According to al-Jadeed TV, the “humanitarian” truce is aimed at securing the evacuation of the wounded from the town.

“Ministers Ashraf Rifi (justice) and Nouhad al-Mashnouq (interior) are mediating between the army and the gunmen and the army is insisting that Arsal's residents must be allowed to leave the town instead of being used as human shields,” al-Jadeed added.

For his part, al-Mustaqbal bloc MP Jamal al-Jarrah said “a ceasefire was reached at 9:05 p.m. and it is being respected by both parties.”

“Efforts continue to resolve some obstacles and disputes and we hope we will end the crisis in the coming 24 hours,” Jarrah added, in remarks to Future TV.

He explained that the army was asked to agree to the truce and Army chief “General Jean Qahwaji, whom we thank, took this decision.”

“The residents pressed the gunmen to cease fire and they complied and halted the firing,” Jarrah added.

“We are now seeking to bolster this ceasefire and to resolve some issues.”

Earlier on Sunday, state-run National News Agency said “violent gunbattles broke out between the army and armed men near the municipal building after the gunmen tried to storm an army post near Arsal's technical school.”

“The town is also witnessing a massive exodus by residents while some fleeing cars are being targeted by gunshots,” NNA added.

Plumes of black smoke could be seen bellowing from several areas in the town's barren mountains as a result of the fighting.

Ten soldiers have been killed and 25 others wounded since the eruption of clashes on Saturday, Army chief General Jean Qahwaji announced on Sunday, as he revealed that 13 troops have gone missing and are “possibly being held prisoner.”

Voice of Lebanon radio (100.5) reported a higher toll in the evening, saying "the army has lost 15 martyrs in its battle with the gunmen in Arsal, including the commander of a battalion and his assistant, both of the rank of lieutenant colonel."

A security source, meanwhile, said that a civilian had been killed by sniper fire inside Arsal, raising the civilian death toll in the fighting to three.

“Lebanese citizen M. al-Fleiti, 19, was killed by sniper fire as he was standing on his house's balcony in Arsal,” al-Jadeed TV reported.

Meanwhile, MTV said the barracks of the army's 83rd Battalion “has fallen into the hands of the gunmen,” noting that it is adjacent to some homes which had been seized by al-Nusra Front's gunmen.

But later on Sunday, the army launched counterattacks to retake the post near the technical school and the barracks of the 83rd Battalion.

“The army seized full control of the technical school post and the barracks in Arsal as several troops sustained light injuries,” al-Jadeed reported.

The army's Airborne Regiment led the operation to recapture the barracks of the 83rd Battalion at Arsal's entrance.

“The gunmen entered the houses near the barracks of the 83rd Battalion, taking citizens as human shields,” said al-Jadeed.

The National News Agency later said that troops were chasing gunmen in the vicinity of the barracks after recapturing it in the afternoon. It said dozens of armed men were killed or wounded in the counterattack as several others managed to escape.

According to NNA, the Airborne Regiment also retook the army post near Arsal's technical school after it was seized by gunmen earlier in the day.

Meanwhile, MTV said the army has started to recapture al-Hosn barracks in Arsal.

“We are facing difficulties in entering Arsal to evacuate the wounded civilians,” the Lebanese Red Cross announced.

LBCI TV said units from the army's Commando Regiment headed to the Ain al-Shaab post where the 8th Brigade is deployed and which did not fall in the hands of gunmen.

Army commandos also deployed at the post near the technical school to “reinforce military presence there,” added LBCI.

Speaking after an urgent security meeting at the Grand Serail, Defense Minister Samir Moqbel said the conferees discussed “the latest developments in the interrogation of the detainee Jomaa and demonstrated the circumstances in which the security personnel were taken hostage in Arsal.”

He noted that the gunmen did not manage to “secure popular support for them inside Arsal.”

“There is very high coordination among the security and military agencies and the conferees discussed the needs of the battle. Prime Minister Tammam Salam stressed the government's keenness on maintaining the military's vigilance and readiness,” Moqbel added.

Responding to a reporter's question on unconfirmed reports that Hizbullah was taking part in the battle, Moqbel said: “Only the Lebanese Army is present in Arsal and it is the only party fighting terrorism.”

“The military operation will continue and there won't be any settlement at the expense of the army,” the minister added.

An extraordinary cabinet session will be held on Monday to follow up on the unrest.

Earlier on Sunday, an army soldier was killed in clashes with the gunmen near the technical school in Arsal as several army positions came under gunfire.

The army continued to send reinforcements to the area throughout the day.

Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3) had reported earlier that Syrian fighter jets also targeted al-Nusra Front gunmen, killing and wounding a number of them during raids in the region near Arsal.

The army had announced late on Saturday that it had regained “complete control” of the Wadi Hamyyed area in Arsal.

It was also in the process of “liberating some nearby hills,” said the National News Agency.

It reported “fierce clashes between the army and gunmen as the former sought to rid the area of the group.”

A military source had informed LBCI television that the majority of the gunmen in Arsal came from Syrian refugee camps.

Tension soared Saturday afternoon in the eastern border town of Arsal when masked Syrian gunmen infiltrated Lebanon after news circulated about the arrest of al-Nusra Front official Imad Ahmed Jomaa.

The infiltrators surrounded army checkpoints and targeted military posts with gunfire, while others stormed an Internal Security Forces post.

Clashes soon erupted between troops and the militants, resulting in the death of several soldiers and civilians.

Jomaa was arrested on Saturday while he was being transferred to a hospital after he sustained injuries during battles on the outskirts of Arsal.

Arsal, a predominantly Sunni area, backs the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The town lies 12 kilometers from the border with Syria and has been used as a conduit for weapons and rebels to enter Syria, while also serving as a refuge for people fleeing the conflict.

The town has seen a massive influx of refugees as a result of the heavy fighting in Qalamoun.

The area has also been the scene of frequent tensions with Lebanese security forces, as well as air raids and shelling by Syrian troops across the border who say they are targeting rebel forces holed up in the mountainous region.

Al-Nusra Front has been fighting against Syrian government forces along with other rebel groups.

Y.R./M.T.


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