BEIRUT Prime Minister Tammam Salam asserted Monday that there will be no political settlement with militants from Syria battling the Lebanese Army in Arsal, stressing that the rival political parties represented in the Cabinet vow unanimous support for the military.
Meanwhile, Salam is overseeing negotiations for a cease-fire deal that is set to begin at 6 p.m. and entails the release of kidnapped soldiers and security personnel captured by militants as well as the withdrawal of gunmen from Lebanon, government sources said.
A delegation from the Committee of Muslim Scholars headed to the northeastern town as part of negotiation efforts after a meeting at the Grand Serail attended by the prime minister.
“Lebanon is subjected to an aggression against its sovereignty and security perpetrated by Takfiri groups, implementing a suspicious, systematic conspiracy aimed at undermining state capacities and institutions,” Salam told reporters at the end of an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Arsal, on the eastern border with Syria.
Salam underlined that the Cabinet, in which rival political groups are represented, stands unanimously behind the Army in its combat against the militants.
“There will be no political solutions with the Takfiri militants who want to transfer the fighting into Lebanon,” Salam said.
“The Army has the full support of the government with all its political components, which stands as one in support of its sacred mission,” Salam added.
He said the government has decided to mobilize all its security institutions and official bodies to defend the country against attempts to undermine its security and turn it into a field for foreign conflicts.
Salam underscored that the “only proposed solution” stipulates the complete withdrawal of Syrian militants from Arsal and its surroundings, the release of all detained Lebanese security and military personnel and the re-establishment of state control over Arsal.
“We assert that there will be no leniency with the killer terrorists. No conciliation with those who have violated the land and harmed its people,” Salam added.
Addressing Arsal residents, the prime minister said: “We assure you that your sufferings will not last long and that your state will not let you down or leave you to become the prey of chaos and terrorism.”
Militants from Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front are refusing to release the 29 military and security personnel they are holding captive in Arsal, unless the Army frees Imad Jomaa, a senior Nursa Front member whose arrest triggered the fighting in the border village, political sources told The Daily Star earlier Monday.
The Army however are refusing any negotiations with the militants unless the captured men are released, stalling a non-military solution to the conflict.
Despite these setbacks, the committee of Sunni Muslim scholars is continuing their efforts to negotiate a political settlement with the militants.
The political sources earlier had said that ministers appeared to have two different approaches on how to deal with the violence in Arsal.
One view, backed by ministers from March 8, called for firm military action to stamp out the militants from the Sunni town that is largely supportive of the Syrian rebellion.
In contrast, the March 14 parties, while supportive of the Army against the militants, were reluctant about resorting to an excessive use of force that could “push things to a point of no return,” the sources said.
March 14 had argued that a “political settlement” would reduce the risk of slipping into more dangerous military confrontations.
According to the sources, March 14 was opposed to having a dialogue with the rebels, but wanted the Army to avoid engaging the militants in Arsal, and would prefer to have the troops enter the town after the withdrawal of the gunmen.
The sources said the committee of Muslim scholars, which has initiated negotiations to reach an agreement between Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and the militants, is acting under the supervision and direction of the prime minister and the Justice and Interior ministers, Ashraf Rifi and Nouhad Machnouk .
But there is no indication that the committee will reach a settlement soon, the sources added.
State Minister Mohammad Fneish of Hezbollah prior to the Cabinet meeting had called for a firm national stance to clamp down on the militants.
“Unless there is a firm national position in support of the Army, the terrorists will exploit this [weakness] and try to set up their [Islamic] state in Lebanon,” Fneish declared prior to entering the meeting.
Education Minister Elias Bou Saab, from the Free Patriotic Movement, echoed Fneish’s statement saying: “We will vote against any political decision that will fall short of a military settlement.”
The Cabinet convened in the absence of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is attending a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran. Also absent were Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb, Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter and Minister for the Displaced Alice Shabtini.
At least 13 soldiers, six civilians and 50 militants have been killed in the fighting in Arsal, which broke out over the weekend when militants waged premeditated attacks against Army positions in and around Arsal, after troops had arrested a notorious Nusra Front member, Imad Jomaa.