Talks to free captured Lebanese soldiers By ISIS at impasse
ISIS delivers video of captured soldiers
Samya Kullab/The Daily Star/BEIRUT: Negotiations to free 19 Lebanese Army soldiers and 17 Internal Security Forces personnel captured by Syrian rebels in the border town of Arsal have come to a standstill, said the Syrian go-between in contact with the militants. “Their demands are that the Roumieh inmates [members of Fatah al-Islam, arrested in 2007] be released if found innocent. They are also demanding the protection of wounded [Syrian] refugees and to ensure that refugees turned away by the regime can safely return to find asylum in Lebanon,” said Ahmad al-Qusair, a former Free Syrian Army (FSA) spokesperson and now the liaison for the Committee of Muslim Scholars with the militants in efforts to free the captured. The committee is the only line of communication between the Lebanese government and the rebels. However, Qusair said during an interview with The Daily Star that so far the negotiations were at an impasse because conceding to the militants’ demands would come at too high a cost, as far as the government was concerned. Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi has the final word in the matter of choosing to acquiesce, Qusair said. Clashes erupted between rebel militants from Syria, who had fled to the outskirts of Arsal following defeats in Qalamoun, and the Army Aug. 2, after the arrest of Imad Jomaa, the rebel commander of the Fajr al-Islam brigade. Qusair said the clashes erupted spontaneously after the Army refused to release Jomaa and were not the intended outcome. “In the beginning, the militants only wanted Jomaa,” he said. “Nabil al-Halabi [a member of the negotiating team] and I were in contact with the fighters and the Army. Three negotiation propositions were presented, including Abu Ahmad [Jomaa] being released, but only promises were made [by the government] with no guarantees.” During the early days of negotiation, Qusair’s main objective was to put the detained Jomaa in contact with his battalion. “This was rejected by the government,” he said. “The militants are still asking for Jomaa.”
The militants in Arsal fought in the Syrian towns of Qusair, al-Nabi and Yabroud, he said, and almost all have families among the refugee population in Arsal. In fact, before Jomaa was arrested in the early hours of Aug. 2, he came into the town “as a civilian” to spend the night with his wife. That morning he was on his way to the Syrian village of Jibbi, in Qalamoun, where Qusair claims fighting was ongoing between rebels and the Syrian regime. According to details relayed to Qusair by Jomaa’s driver, known as “Firas,” a Humvee belonging to the Army had chased him and captured the battalion leader alone. “ Abu Ahmad told me many times that he is completely against bringing the war to Lebanon, and he still believes that,” Qusair said. But unanswered questions remain as to what propelled the militants to exchange fire with the Army for five days. Qusair said the militants were prompted to attack because artillery had hit a refugee camp in the town, a claim contrasting sharply with the Army’s narrative that checkpoints had been attacked and their soldiers taken. “I told the guys, what you’re doing is wrong,” he said. “They answered by saying that they knew what they did was wrong, but that it was too late, because civilians have been involved, residents of Arsal and refugees.” Qusair insisted that Jomaa’s recent pledge to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria did not mean his battalion subscribed to the same methods of the group operating in northern Syria and Iraq. “ISIS in Lebanon is different than ISIS in Iraq. These used to be average FSA fighters, I used to spend time with them,” he said. “I would not have accepted to negotiate there [in Iraq], but here, I did.”Qusair became acquainted with the militants during the early days of the Syrian war. In the brief lull during the clashes in Arsal, the Committee of Muslim Scholars was allowed to enter the town and negotiate with the militants face to face. Qusair recalled being in the convoy as it came under fire, injuring committee member Sheikh Salem Rafei. “We didn’t sleep that night,” he said. “But we agreed on a few things like letting a delegation of Arsalis take the town, plus assigning Syrian activists in each of the camps, withdrawing the militants from Arsal and releasing three captives as a good will gesture.”The militants withdrew from Arsal after five days of clashes with the Army. They took the captives with them. Qusair named Abu Malek al-Shami as the key figure from the Nusra Front who led the Arsal battles. “He said to me: If there was someone else from the Nusra Front negotiating, they would not have been as nice.”
ISIS delivers video of captured soldiers
Kareem Shaheen/Rakan al-Fakih| The Daily Star
BEIRUT/LABWEH: A video of Lebanese soldiers held hostage by Islamist militants who fought the Army in Arsal last week was handed over to Prime Minister Tammam Salam, a sheikh involved in the negotiations to release them and sources close to the premier told The Daily Star Wednesday. The video depicts seven Army soldiers who were captured by the Al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), during clashes which began Aug. 2 following the Army’s arrest of a Syrian commander named Imad Jomaa. In the video, the soldiers identify themselves and the units they belong to in the Army, Sheikh Adnan Amama of the Committee of Muslim Scholars told The Daily Star. Amama said the soldiers appeared to be in good health, but declined to provide their names. He confirmed that the video and the names were handed to Salam. The committee, comprised of Sunni sheikhs, was responsible for negotiating a cease-fire that ended the fighting and allowed Islamists to withdraw from Arsal. It is in negotiations for the release of the Lebanese hostages. Militants abducted at least 20 security personnel, including members of the Internal Security Forces, when they stormed a police station in Arsal at the start of the clashes. Voix du Liban identified the soldiers as Abdul Rahim Diab, Khaled Hassan, Ali al-Sayed, Hussein Ammar, Ali al-Masri, Saif Thebian and Mustafa Wahbe. The radio station said on its Twitter feed that the militants held 16 soldiers – seven with ISIS and nine with the Nusra Front. Amama said ISIS had not submitted any new demands to the government for the release of the soldiers, but had reiterated previous requests that included the protection of the refugee camps in Arsal from reprisals, as well as addressing allegations of mistreatment and torture of some individuals who were wounded during the siege of Arsal. He said ISIS had also claimed that the Army was detaining children that the military believes are fighters. “These were all concerns that they asked us to relay to the authorities before beginning to negotiate about the release of the soldiers,” Amama said. He added that the militants may provide a list of names of individuals they want freed in exchange for the soldiers, but they wanted to see “positive signs” from the government in addressing these allegations before providing such a list. He said the negotiators had not yet received any names of prisoners that the militants want released. Speculation over a possible prisoner exchange emerged late last week, with claims that the militants may demand the release of Islamists held in Lebanese prisons in order to hand over the soldiers. Fighters loyal to ISIS and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front stormed Arsal last week in a coordinated assault that prompted the Army siege. The militants withdrew to the border with Syria after five days of battles. The case of Jomaa and others arrested in connection with the Arsal events was referred to Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr Wednesday. Meanwhile, Lebanese Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi made a rare visit to Lebanon’s border region, inspecting troops deployed in Arsal. Security sources said Kahwagi arrived by helicopter at the Lebanese Army barracks in Labweh amid strict security measures. From Labweh, he drove to nearby Arsal. The sources said Kahwagi left Arsal about two hours later. Kahwagi has vowed that freeing the soldiers held in captivity is the Army’s top priority. Khawagi hailed his troops for “thwarting a devious plan targeting Lebanon’s unity.” Separately, the president of a charity organization in Tripoli died while fighting in battles in Syria’s Qalamoun region, according to residents of the northern city. The head of the Al-Bashair organization, a social charity association, was killed in the ongoing fighting between Hezbollah-backed regime troops and rebel groups in the mountainous region bordering Lebanon. Abu Ahmad al-Rifai, nicknamed Abu Yasser, was buried Tuesday in his hometown of Tripoli, where many residents support the Syrian opposition and condemn Hezbollah’s role fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. A number of Tripoli residents are reportedly fighting alongside rebel groups in Syria.