Lebanese free 7 soldiers held by Syria militants

FADI TAWIL
Lebanese army soldiers sit inside a Humvee as reinforcements arrive to the outskirts of Arsal, a predominantly Sunni Muslim town near the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees packed cars and pickup trucks Monday, fleeing an eastern border town that was overrun by militants from neighboring Syria as Lebanese troops fight to liberate the area. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

LABWEH, Lebanon (AP) — The Lebanese army early Thursday freed seven of its soldiers held by militants from Syria who overran a border town last week in the most serious spillover of fighting from the three-year-old war in the neighboring country.

Their release came as Islamic militants overran a Syrian army base in the country's northeast, activists said Thursday, as fighters of the extremist Islamic State group continued to expand their self-styled caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The Islamic State militants seized the Brigade 93 base overnight after days of heavy fighting, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the Raqqa Media Center, an activist collective. The base lies some 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the provincial capital of Raqqa, a stronghold for the Islamic State group.

Abdurrahman said dozens of Syrian soldiers were killed. The Britain-based Observatory obtains its information from activists on the ground in Syria. If confirmed, the death toll would make the incident one of the deadliest wartime losses for pro-government forces since the Syrian conflict began. Syrian state media did not report the incident.

A video uploaded to social media networks showed heavily armed men with thick beards -- who claimed to be from the Islamic State group -- walking through the military base, showing off tanks, assault rifles and boxes of ammunition.

The Islamic State group, an al-Qaida breakaway, has seized wide swathes of Syria and Iraq, where they are imposing their ultraconservative version of Muslim law, including killing people they see as apostates, beheading and crucifying rivals.

In Lebanon, the release of the soldiers came as a truce mediated by Sunni Muslim clerics overnight held, following days of clashes.

A security official said the soldiers had been held in a house on the edge of the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't allowed to speak to media.

As the men were released, some 20 ambulances of the Lebanese Red Cross rushed into the town to evacuate the wounded.

The fighting began Saturday when militants from Syria overran Arsal, seizing Lebanese army posts, soldiers and policemen, and demanding the release of a rebel commander detained in Lebanon. The militants included fighters from the Islamic State group as well as from the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's official Syrian affiliate.

At least 17 soldiers have been killed in the clashes, while 10 are still missing, along with an unknown number of policemen. The clashes trapped tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees in Arsal, and ramped up tensions between Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites.

Arsal's capture 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.

In a separate incident, a bomb blast overnight killed one person near a military post in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, state media reported.

Tripoli is often the scene of violence between supporters and opponents of the uprising against Assad. It was not immediately clear if the bombing was related to the fighting in Arsal.

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Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Beirut.