Militant Islamists have mostly withdrawn from a Lebanese border town they seized at the weekend, taking with them captive Lebanese soldiers, militant and security sources said on Thursday, as a truce to end the deadly battle appeared to hold.
Muslim clerics who had been mediating an end to five days of fighting in Arsal said they would negotiate for the release of remaining captives held by militants whose incursion into Lebanon marked the most serious spillover of Syria’s three-year-old civil war into Lebanese territory.
Dozens of people have been killed in the battle between the army and Islamists from groups including the Islamic State, which has seized large areas of territory in Iraq and Syria.
“The army is in control today, but the danger has not entirely gone, especially given that the terrorists have hostages,” said Amin Hteit, a Lebanese military affairs expert and retired army general.
The dead include 17 Lebanese soldiers. A Syrian doctor in Arsal put the total civilian death toll at 42, while security sources have reported dozens of fatalities among the militants.
About half a dozen armoured personnel carriers mounted with machine guns rolled uphill toward Arsal on Thursday afternoon, though there were no signs of fighting. Ambulances sped away on the main road, where speed bumps had been removed.
Speaking on the road outside Arsal, Abdullah Zogheib of the Lebanese Red Cross said medics had entered the town in the morning and evacuated 42 wounded people, mostly women and children.
“Most of them had very serious wounds. They had been shot by bullets, some in the head, and there were amputees from shell fire,” he said, adding the situation in town now seemed “normal” and that people were walking in the streets.
“We didn’t see any gunmen. We don’t know if they were hiding or if they just weren’t there.”
Security officials say 19 soldiers are still missing, presumed taken by the militants when they attacked Arsal on Saturday in what the army described as long-planned attack. More than a dozen policemen were also taken captive.
One of the withdrawing militants told Reuters the fighters pulled out at dawn and took the hostages with them. “They could be released later in stages,” he said. A security source confirmed the militants had taken the captives with them.
The mediators from the Muslim Clerics Association on Wednesday secured the release of three of the soldiers.
“We can confirm that the town is almost free of (the militants),” said one of the mediating clerics during a televised news conference speaking on the outskirts of the town.
“Within hours everything will be over.”
The Arsal incursion followed major setbacks for the insurgents fighting President Bashar al-Assad over the border in Syria.
Syrian Government forces backed by the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah have driven the rebels out of major towns on the Syrian side of the border in the Qalamoun mountain range.
Syrian warplanes bombed the border area on Thursday after the militants’ withdrawal from Arsal, a security source and a Syrian witness in Arsal said.
FIRST MAJOR INCURSION
The taking of Arsal was the first major incursion into Lebanon by hardline Sunni militants – leading players in Sunni-Shi’ite violence unfolding across the Levant – which threatens the stability of Lebanon by inflaming its own sectarian tensions.
Arsal is a Sunni Muslim town at the border where tens of thousands of refugees have taken shelter from the war in neighbouring Syria. Their refugee camps have been badly damaged in the fighting, Syrian activists have reported.
A Lebanese security source said the militants appeared to be pulling out gradually, but the army was still assessing the situation. A Lebanese political source familiar with the situation on the ground said some of the militants were still in the town, including Islamic State fighters.
Advancing soldiers found three policemen alive and well at a clinic in the town on Thursday, a security official said.
The battle in Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town, has triggered unrest in other parts of Lebanon. A bomb exploded near an army patrol in the northern city of Tripoli, also predominantly Sunni, killing one person and wounding 11 on Wednesday evening, security sources said.
Qassem al-Zein, the Syrian doctor at the field hospital in Arsal, said medics had counted 42 dead civilians since the conflict began, largely refugees hit by army shelling. Over 400 more had been wounded, he said.
He said shelling had stopped since the morning, but there was still some sporadic shooting in some areas. “Some wounded are coming,” he said by phone.