Hundreds of Syrian refugees headed home from Lebanon’s border town of Arsal and dozens of wounded were evacuated Thursday during a truce in fighting between jihadists and Lebanese soldiers.
The truce, announced Wednesday night by Sunni clerics serving as mediators, has raised hopes of an end to the worst violence in the area since the conflict in neighbouring Syria erupted in March 2011.
At least 17 soldiers have been killed battling the jihadists, who are reportedly from several different extremist groups fighting in Syria.
Another 22 soldiers have been captured, although three were freed Wednesday.
The exodus of refugees, who had reportedly sought to leave Arsal even before the clashes, was being facilitated by Lebanese authorities and a Syrian nun close to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Sister Agnes told AFP that 1,700 men, women and children, mostly from the Qalamun area just across the border from Arsal, were en route to the Masnaa border crossing.
Another 3,000 refugees among the 47,000 sheltering in Arsal have also asked to leave to Syria, she said.
– 44 wounded evacuated –
The departure of the refugees came as the truce appeared to be holding and no clashes were reported on Thursday.
The truce was announced by the mediators, who said the gunmen in control of the town had agreed to withdraw and that soldiers and policemen being held hostage would be released.
“The remaining armed men have undertaken to leave Arsal completely within 24 hours,” cleric Samih Ezzedine said on Wednesday night.
“All the prisoners are alive and despite difficult negotiations we have clear and positive promises they will be released.”
Army vehicles were deployed on the fringes of Arsal on Thursday and three trucks loaded with supplied entered the town, an AFP correspondent said.
“We see no armed men today” inside Arsal, said Wafiq Khalaf, a member of its town council, contacted by telephone. “They’ve all gone. We can’t see them, unless they’ve gone into hiding.”
A military source said the army could not verify the pullout until soldiers moved in.
“There is a lot of destruction,” Khalaf said, with houses destroyed and shops set ablaze.
One of the mediators, cleric Hossam al-Ghali, said a Syrian refugee camp had been totally burnt down “and there are bodies inside. The place smells of death.”
The military source said that soldiers as they advanced had freed seven police being held by the jihadists.
Army chief General Jean Kawahji said the remaining hostages were being detained on a mountain overlooking Arsal.
A group of some 20 policemen are still in the hands of the jihadists who stormed a police post in Arsal on Saturday at the outset of the clashes.
Medical services took advantage of the quiet Thursday to send in ambulances to evacuate at least 44 wounded people, both Lebanese and Syrians, the Red Cross said.
At least three civilians have been confirmed killed in the fighting, but the toll is believed to be much higher.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Thursday it had reports from field hospitals of at least 47 people killed and 268 wounded.
– Calls for aid –
The fighting has prompted widespread concern in Lebanon, with the army and politicians urging the international community to offer assistance.
Army chief General Jean Kahwaji has urged France to speed up delivery of weapons being bought for the military by Saudi Arabia under a $3-billion deal announced last year.
On Tuesday night, Lebanon’s former prime minister Saad Hariri announced that Riyadh was pledging another $1 billion that would be available immediately for the army and security forces.
The fighting began after soldiers detained a Syrian man accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
Lebanon has sought to insulate itself from the raging war next door, but the conflict has regularly spilled over.
It currently hosts more than one million Syrian refugees, and the battle between Sunni-led rebels and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has stoked existing political and sectarian tensions.
Many of Lebanon’s Sunnis, including the residents of Arsal, sympathise with the Syrian uprising.
But Lebanese Shiites tend to back Assad’s regime, and the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah has sent its fighters across the border to bolster the embattled leader’s forces.
As the hundreds of Syrian refugees leaving Arsal passed through the neighbouring Shiite town of Labweh on Thursday afternoon, some residents jeered and swore at them.
The clashes in Arsal have also raised tensions in Tripoli, where a homemade explosive device detonated near a military post on Wednesday night, killing one person and injuring six others.