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Lebanon clerics seek talks to end jihadist clashes

A delegation of Sunni clerics entered eastern Lebanon's Arsal on Wednesday (Aug 6) in a bid to negotiate an end to clashes between the army and jihadists who have killed and captured soldiers.

LABWEH: A delegation of Sunni clerics entered eastern Lebanon's Arsal on Wednesday (Aug 6) in a bid to negotiate an end to clashes between the army and jihadists who have killed and captured soldiers.

The delegation was hoping to bring to an end to clashes that began in the area on the Syrian border on Saturday (Aug 1), and have killed at least 17 soldiers.

A security source said a humanitarian ceasefire was in effect and expected to last until Wednesday evening, allowing talks to continue and the evacuation of the wounded and trapped civilians. A resident of Arsal told AFP many of the jihadists appeared to have withdrawn from its streets, though he said he could still see around 20 militants manning a checkpoint near his home.

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 militants, along with an estimated 20 Lebanese policemen. The UN agency for refugees UNHCR said earlier in the week it had received reports from local field hospitals of 38 people killed and 268 wounded, though there was no official confirmation.

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 US$1 billion (S$1.25 billion). On Wednesday, Hariri said 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. Together, he said, they would "examine the programmes, plans and projects that will cater to the urgent needs of the army and contribute directly to the provision of the supplies needed to defeat terrorism."

"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. "Our mission is to be transparent and do things as quickly as possible. The king has directed that things by done as quickly as possible, particularly with regards to ammunition."

The new aid pledge came after Saudi and France said they would both work to speed up implementation of a separate US$3 billion 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. Security sources said the army would only consider a deal under which the jihadists withdrew from Arsal and handed over the soldiers believed to have been taken hostage by the militants.

On Wednesday afternoon, an AFP correspondent said ambulances were entering Arsal and a military truck had evacuated some civilians. A convoy of trucks carrying aid for residents of the town tried to enter, but was blocked by residents from a neighbouring village who said the assistance would end up in the hands of jihadists.

The fighting has raised fears about the stability of Lebanon, which is hosting more than one million Syrian refugees and has seen existing political and sectarian tensions heightened by its neighbour's war.

Many of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims, including residents of Arsal, back the uprising against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. But much of the Shiite community backs Assad, and the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement has sent fighters to bolster his forces against the rebels.