New clashes break out in Lebanese border town
BEIRUT — Fighting erupted again Wednesday in a Lebanese border town held by Islamic extremists from neighboring Syria after a negotiated truce collapsed overnight. Muslim clerics launched new efforts to broker another cease-fire in what has been the most serious spillover to date from Syria's civil war.
Lebanon's former prime minister, meanwhile, announced that Saudi Arabia is granting another $1 billion in aid to the Lebanese army to support its fight against militants.
The initial truce, brokered on Tuesday, was meant to end days of fighting in the eastern town of Arsal and allow for negotiations for the release of captive Lebanese soldiers.
Clashes broke out again after Syrian militants in Arsal opened fire on Lebanese troops early Wednesday and then spread through the predominantly Sunni town. Ambulances were seen rushing in and out of the town and the boom of artillery and crackling gunfire echoed from a nearby mountain.
Later in the morning, a delegation of Sunni clerics entered the town to try to mediate a new ceasefire, said Sheik Raed Hleihel from the Association of Muslim Scholars and a Syrian activist who uses the name Ahmad Alqusair. The two were not part of the delegation Wednesday but were in Arsal for previous negotiations.
Fighting in Arsal first began on Saturday when militants from Syria overran the town, which lies near the border with Syria. They seized Lebanese army positions and captured a number of soldiers and policemen, demanding the release of a prominent Syrian rebel commander, Imad Ahmad Jomaa, who was arrested in Lebanon earlier on Saturday.
So far, 17 Lebanese troops have been killed and at least 22 soldiers and an unknown number of policemen have been declared missing in Arsal. Tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees have been trapped by the fighting, and mediators were trying to work out an arrangement to evacuate wounded civilians from the town.
A convoy of vehicles carrying humanitarian aid, including water, bread and other food, was turned back by angry residents in the nearby Shiite-majority town of Labweh. "God bless the army!" they shouted, blocking the convoy's path.
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, raising concerns that the tiny country is being further sucked into its larger neighbor's bloodletting.
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, on a visit to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, announced that the kingdom was providing the Lebanese army with an additional $1 billion in aid.
The funds are separate from the $3 billion Saudi Arabia pledged in December to help strengthen Lebanon's armed forces with the purchase of weapons from France. That was the biggest grant ever for the Lebanese military, but there have been delays in the delivery of that aid.
Hariri, a Sunni leader in Lebanon, was quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency saying Abdullah's new aid pledge is aimed at preserving the "security and stability of Lebanon."
Meanwhile, the European Union said Wednesday it remains "deeply concerned by the severe security, political, economic and social challenges Lebanon is facing as a result of the conflict in Syria."
The militants in Arsal belong to Syria's al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, and the more extreme Islamic State group, alongside other smaller Syrian rebel brigades, officials said.
Hleihel, the Sunni cleric, said the militants are demanding Jomaa's release. He was initially reported to be a member of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, but later, activists said he had pledged allegiance to the breakaway Islamic State group.
According to activist Alqusair, the militants also wanted representation on a council overseeing town affairs in Arsal, which the rebels have used as a base for launching attacks into Syria.
Over 170,000 people have been killed in Syria's civil war, nearly a third of them civilians, activists say.
Also Wednesday, a leading rights group called on rebels in Syria to "immediately release" 54 women and children they have held hostage since the rebels seized their villages last year.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the women and children were likely taken because they are Alawite, members of a Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad also belongs, and that the rebels were likely seeking to exchange them for opposition fighters captured by the government.AP Abdullah Al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Juergen Baetz in Brussels contributed to this report.