ARSAL, Lebanon: Muslim Scholars Committee member Sheikh Younis Abdel Razzak reportedly said Sunday that the negotiations on the issue of the abducted soldiers of Arsal were heading to a solution soon, while stressing that the committee had no direct contact between the armed men.
Talking to a morning show on LBCI, Razzak said a Syrian mediator, and not any member of the committee, was currently negotiating with the militants, while the committee is holding communications with the Syrian side and the Lebanese authorities.
Sheikh Samih Ezzedine, another member of the committee, had told As-Sarq al-Awsat Newspaper Saturday that good news might come up soon, while the death toll from the five-day clashes hit 19 after the discovery of a soldier’s body.
“The security personnel, who were held hostage, were divided among several [extremist] factions,” Ezzedine said.
Part of the team that negotiated the cease-fire with the Syrian rebels who had attacked the town last week, Ezzedine condemned the “negative role played by some media outlets,” stressing that it had been causing “problems among the [extremist] groups, and thus affecting the release of the security troops.”
Saturday night, the Army found the body of one of its soldiers who had died in clashes with the militants during the first days, taking the death toll to 19. DNA tests have yet to determine the identity of the soldier. Earlier Saturday, another solider succumbed to his wounds sustained in the clashes.
The Lebanese Army entered Arsal Saturday and redeployed in checkpoints that had been overrun by militants, as relatives of kidnapped soldiers and security forces issued a personal call for their release.
Thirty-five military vehicles, including two tanks, drove through the northeastern town in the afternoon, making their way to Aqabat al-Mebyaah in Wadi al-Hosn, an Army post that militants took over on the first day of fighting, as well as Sayadeye among other posts.
The five-day ferocious clashes, which had erupted on Aug. 2 over the arrest of Syrian militant commander Ahmad Jomaa, were according to the Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi a premeditated attack on the military.
Despite the withdrawal of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front - some of whom resided in Syrian refugee camps in Arsal - and the cease-fire that allowed the entry of needed aid into the town, militants are still holding 25 hostages: 17 members of the Internal Security Forces and 8 soldiers, according to a security source.
Meanwhile, a number of relatives of the captured soldiers and members of the ISF held a protest along the international highway near Drous roundabout in Baalbek, calling for the release of their loved ones.
"We want our children back, Sunnis, Christians and Shiites," the relatives chanted as they carried Lebanese flags.
The head of the Taraya municipality, Mayor Mahdeh Hamdeye, thanked the Committee of Muslim Scholars and Arsal residents for trying to negotiate a release of the captives.
"We have brotherly ties with Arsal residents, but a strange element surfaced and kidnapped our children. All we want is their release and we don't have any animosity toward Arsal,” he said.
The Committee of Muslim Scholars, which mediated the cease-fire and is overseeing talks to release the captured soldiers, has said that it is waiting for the kidnappers to deliver a final list of demands.
ISIS and the Nusra Front were behind the abductions, with some media reports saying that the purpose behind the kidnappings was to use the hostages as an exchange for Islamist inmates in Roumieh Prison.
Sheikh Adnan Amama told The Daily Star Friday that one of the militants’ main demands was a guarantee that once the soldiers were freed, the Syrian refugee camps in Arsal would remain safe.
Some of the camps in the town were heavily damaged after they were burned to the ground during the clashes, which forced many Syrians to flee to neighboring villages while others sought to return to their home country.