A ceasefire between the Lebanese army and Syrian armed fighters near the border town of Arsal has been extended by 24 hours, Muslim clerics mediating between the sides have said.
In a televised news conference on Wednesday, they also said three Lebanese soldiers taken captive by the fighters had been released, and that the fighters had started withdrawing from the border town of Arsal.
“We have a clear commitment from Lebanese army and politicians that the ceasefire will stay in force to allow our mediation efforts to continue,” Hussam Al Ghali, one of the negotiating clerics said.
“The armed fighters will withdraw and security forces will enter Arsal.
“We managed to secure the release of three army soldiers today and hopefully tomorrow more will be freed. Our efforts are important to avoid Lebanon a disaster.”
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Arsal, said: “A 24-hour truce will be in place until tomorrow, during these 24 hours the armed fighters holed up in Arsal will withdraw to the outskirts of the town, a mountainous region which lies on the border with Syria.
“We do not know whether these armed fighters are ready to release more than 30 Lebanese security officers they have kidnapped.”
The delegation of clerics entered eastern Arsal on Wednesday in a bid to negotiate an end to clashes between the Lebanese army and armed fighters that began in the area on Saturday, and have left at least 17 soldiers dead.
Any time the Lebanese army, or internal security forces or any other legitimate security force in Lebanon has immediate needs in order to combat terrorism, there will be funds available to buy what is needed
Lebanon’s army says at least 22 of its soldiers have gone missing in the fighting, and are assumed to be held hostage by the fighters, along with an estimated 20 Lebanese policemen.
“The Lebanese government has made clear they are not interested in negotiating with what they call terrorists,” Khodr said.
“The only solution they will agree to is for the fighters to withdraw to Syria and release all the hostages, this is not the end of this conflict, it could be prolonged and deadly.”
The UN agency for refugees said earlier in the week that it had received reports from local field hospitals of 38 people killed and 268 wounded, though there was no official confirmation.
The European Union issued a statement on Wednesday condemning the attack on Arsal by the fighters.
“We fully support the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] in defending their country and people, and welcome the determination of Lebanese political leaders to put an end to terrorism and violent extremism,” the statement read.
The fighting has prompted Lebanon’s army chief to call for more international aid, and on Tuesday night, Lebanon’s former prime minister Saad Hariri announced Saudi Arabia had pledged $1bn.
Hariri said on Wednesday the money would be made available to the country’s security forces immediately.
Hariri, who is Lebanon’s top Sunni politician but has resided overseas since the assassination of his father Rafiq Hariri, said he would be in contact with Lebanon’s prime minister, cabinet and military and security apparatus.
“Any time the Lebanese army, or internal security forces or any other legitimate security force in Lebanon has immediate needs in order to combat terrorism, there will be funds available to buy what is needed,” he said.
The new aid pledge came after Saudi Arabia and France said they would both work to speed up the implementation of a separate $3bn arms deal for Lebanon.
That deal, announced last December, involves Saudi financing for the purchase of French equipment, but a list of what will be obtained has yet to be finalised.
The clashes in Arsal are the most serious in the border region since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011.
Also on Wednesday, a bomb exploded in the Lebanese city of Tripoli on Wednesday, killing one person and wounding seven others, security sources said.
Ambulances were seen rushing to the area of the blast, which was cordoned off by the military.