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Lebanese free 7 soldiers held by Syria militants

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.

The soldiers were being held in a house on the edge of the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, said a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't allowed to speak to media. Lebanon's state media said the men were freed in a military operation but provided no further details.

Their release did not seem to provoke any breakdown of a truce that was mediated by Sunni Muslim clerics overnight to halt days of clashes. 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, demanding the release of a rebel commander detained in Lebanon.

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.

_____

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

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