Huge Destruction in Arsal after Militant Retreat, Nusra Says Soldiers in Captivity Have 'Special Status'إقرأ هذا الخبر بالعربية
The Muslim Scholars Committee delegation tasked with mediating with jihadist gunmen in the northeastern town of Arsal announced on Thursday that it has lost contact with militants who have kidnapped army troops, but assured that it will stay in the Bekaa region until it receives information on the soldiers' whereabouts and well-being.
But al-Nusra Front announced late on Thursday evening that the troops who are still in captivity have a "special status that will be revealed later."
"The issue of the abducted soldiers has not been resolved yet,” Sheikh Mohieddine Nasabayeh of the Muslim Scholars Committee said from Arsal, adding that the delegation will stay in the region until it receives information about the kidnapped troops.
He noted that the jihadist militants are now “in control of the communication efforts” with the scholars.
"We have lost contact with the kidnappers because they retreated to the Arsal plains where there is no network connection. But despite this we will communicate with them,” he explained.
Likewise, Imam of the Arsal mosque Sheikh Samih Ezzeddine, who is also a member of the Muslim Scholars' Committee delegation, confirmed to al-Jadeed television that communication with militants was halted because “their mobile phones were turned off.”
But later in the evening, al-Jadeed television reported that the Muslim Scholars Committee delegation managed to communicate with militants over the phone and that it has informed General Shamel Roukoz - the head of the Army Commando Unit - about the negotiations.
Nasabayeh said that the militants never set any conditions for the soldiers' release, assuring also that the kidnapped troops are all “doing well.”
But he said that not all information he has in this matter can be revealed and remarked that “everything is negotiable."
“What prevents releasing the inmates held at Roumieh prison?” he asked.
The Muslim Scholars Committee member also said that there is “no reason for opening fire in Arsal” anymore.
“There are no gunmen here. Resorting to opening fire will result in a massacre as people are traveling in the region and inspecting houses,” he elaborated.
Meanwhile, sources told LBCI television that as the ceasefire ends at 7:00 pm, “if the Muslims Scholars Committee returned without the abducted soldiers, the military operations might resume especially in the Arsal plains region” where the jihadist fighters have retreated to.
And later on Thursday, the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front explained reasons for withdrawing its fighters from the clash-hit area, saying that a group in the organization stormed the town and is now undergoing an interrogation.
"The Arsal region is an area that facilitates the movements of al-Qalamoun fighters and Syria's refugees and therefore, it is not permissible to transform this land into a battlefield to serve the enemies of Islam,” the group said in a released statement.
It elaborated: “A faction of al-Nusra attacked a checkpoint in Arsal because of Ahmed Jomaa's arrest, who has recently pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in Qalamoun, and this group is now being interrogated and has been disowned by IS because of its operation.”
But after the attack, the “Islamic world was shocked by the response of the Lebanese army and its soldiers, who bombed and torched camps and houses in Arsal,” al-Nusra said.
"And therefore, we became aware that a military solution is the only choice and we tried to prevent the crisis to save the bloodshed of Muslims through communicating with Nabil Kahale and others,” the group went on to say.
Then a deal was reached and "we handed over six soldiers who were kidnapped as a goodwill gesture."
As for the soldiers still in captivity, the extremist group said: “They have a special status that will be revealed later.”
On ground, LBCI reported that several houses were destroyed in Arsal and that gunmen were no longer present in the region except in some hideouts.
LBCI also said that the humanitarian aid truck that was destined for Arsal has retreated back without delivering the aid because the residents of the town rejected receiving them.
Earlier in Thursday, the Lebanese army rescued seven Internal Security Forces members held by Islamist gunmen near Arsal after the jihadists withdrew from the area, the state-run National News Agency reported.
The army's Airborne Regiment carried out the operation to free the policemen, who were being held in a house on the edge of Arsal by the terrorists that overran the town on Saturday.
Six ISF members were released by the militants in two batches in the past two days after Muslim scholars brokered a cease-fire in what has been the most serious spillover to date from Syria's civil war.
Scores of soldiers have been killed and injured in the fighting. A number of policemen and soldiers are missing or remain in captivity.
Meanwhile, around 20 Red Cross ambulances entered Arsal in coordination with the Lebanese army and transported 44 people injured in the clashes between the army and jihadists to hospitals for treatment.
NNA said the majority of them are Syrians.
A delegation of Muslim scholars said it made a big progress in its mediation.
"Most armed groups withdrew from Arsal and the crisis will end within hours,” said Sheikh Husam al-Ghali, a spokesperson for the Muslim Scholars Committee.
The sheikh added that the committee will continue to negotiate the release of the captives.
Army chief Gen. Jean Qahwaji confirmed the pullout, telling cabinet ministers that the jihadists withdrew to Syrian territories at 3:00 am.
The army is in the town to transport the wounded soldiers, he said.
The gunmen took the hostages with them, Qahwaji added.
The capture of Arsal was the first time in Syria's conflict, now in its fourth year, that rebels seeking the overthrow of President Bashar Assad have carried out a large-scale incursion into Lebanon.
The fighting has prompted Army chief Gen. Jean Qahwaji to call for more international aid, and on Tuesday night, al-Mustaqbal movement leader ex-PM Saad Hariri announced Saudi Arabia had pledged $1 billion.
The new aid pledge came after Saudi Arabia and France said they would both work to speed up implementation of a separate $3 billion arms deal for Lebanon.