Salam mulls seeking Syria’s help to resolve hostage crisis


Salam mulls seeking Syria’s help to resolve hostage crisis
Hasan Lakkis/Hussein Dakroub/The Daily Star
Nov. 03, 2014

 BEIRUT: Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim has handed the demands of the captors of the 27 Lebanese servicemen to Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who is contacting Cabinet members over sending the General Security chief to Syria for talks on the hostage crisis, ministerial sources said Sunday. Ibrahim had received the kidnappers’ demands from Ahmad al-Khatib, a Syrian, who has been appointed by Qatar to mediate in the 3-month-old hostage crisis. Salam has begun contacts with all Cabinet members and the country’s main parties to determine if they have any reservations or objection to assigning Ibrahim to officially contact the Syrian regime over the hostage crisis, the sources said. They added that this would help the Cabinet make a decision on pursuing indirect negotiations on clear bases with ISIS and Nusra Front militants who are holding 27 Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage. Without disclosing details of the captors’ demands, the sources stressed that the success of negotiations with the militants required official cooperation between the Lebanese and Syrian governments. Contacting the Syrian government is deemed essential after the Nusra Front demanded, among other things, the release of female prisoners in Syria, in exchange for freeing the Lebanese hostages.

 In line with its declared policy of disassociation on the Syrian conflict, the Lebanese government has avoided talks with either the Syrian regime or opposition groups fighting to topple the regime. The Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, said Saturday that it had handed Khatib a list of names of prisoners it wants released in exchange for the 27 servicemen. The group said on Twitter that its representatives met with Khatib Thursday and Saturday to discuss negotiations to end the hostage crisis. The Lebanese government has agreed in principle on a swap deal, the Nusra Front claimed, according to a proposal handed to them by the mediator. After the meeting Thursday between Khatib and the Nusra Front, the mediator held talks with the Lebanese side tasked with following up on the case.

 He then returned to meet with the jihadists Saturday and presented them with “an agreement in principle on releasing Lebanese and Syrian prisoners in Lebanon and Syria,” the Nusra Front said. The militant group said it suggested three proposals that would ultimately resolve the case: The release of 10 detainees in Lebanese prisons for each captive; the release of seven Lebanese and 30 women held in Syrian prisons for each captive; or the release five Lebanese and 50 female detainees in exchange for the release of each hostage.
“In case one of these proposals is adopted, the swap deal for the Syrian detainees will take place either in Turkey or Qatar, the swap for the Lebanese prisoners will take place on the outskirts of Arsal or wherever the [negotiator] demands,” the group said. It added that it had handed Khatib a list of names of prisoners they want released in exchange for the captives.

The kidnappers’ demands come as the government remains split over a swap deal with the militants. Health Minister Wael Abu Faour as well as the families of the captured soldiers have repeatedly urged the government to enter into a swap deal with the kidnappers. But this was opposed by ministers from Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement. Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk, who is close to Salam, said the principle of a swap deal has not yet been proposed to the Cabinet.

“The Cabinet has said it agrees to the principle of negotiations. So far, the swap principle has not been proposed to the Cabinet,” Machnouk told Al-Jadeed TV Sunday night. He cited some positive signals over the hostage crisis such as the continued negotiations, the talk about the captors’ demands and the militants refraining from threatening to kill any of their hostages. The negotiations are the first serious sign of progress to free the servicemen since their capture during a five-day battle between the Army and militants from ISIS and the Nusra Front in the northeastern town of Arsal in August. ISIS has executed two soldiers while Nusra has killed one and has recently threatened to kill another in a bid to pressure the Army to ease its measures on the northern city of Tripoli. The militants have long demanded the release of Islamist detainees in Roumieh prison for freeing the kidnapped soldiers. Separately, the Lebanese Army dismantled a bomb discovered near a Hezbollah complex in the southern city of Sidon Sunday night.

 The military said an Army Intelligence patrol discovered a device containing 500 grams of TNT connected to a hand grenade and an electrical detonator in Haret Saida near Hezbollah’s Sayyed al-Shuhada complex, where daily gatherings are taking place for Ashoura. A military explosives expert arrived at the site and dismantled the bomb, the statement said. Ceremonies to commemorate Ashoura reach their climax Tuesday. Lebanese security agencies, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have stepped up security measures across Lebanon to forestall potential attacks against Ashoura gatherings by jihadist groups.