Fighting erupted 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 ceasefire in what has been the most serious spillover from Syria’s civil war.
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.
According to the Lebanese National News Agency, clashes broke out again after Syrian militants in Arsal opened fire on Lebanese troops early Wednesday and then spread through several fronts across the predominantly Sunni town.
Later in the morning, a delegation of Sunni clerics entered the town to try to mediate another 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 a 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 as missing in the Arsal fighting. Tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees have been trapped by the fighting.
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 carried out a large-scale incursion into Lebanon, raising concerns that the tiny country is being further sucked into its larger neighbor’s bloodletting.
The European Union said 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 EU said Wednesday it would continue providing support to the country.
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.
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