ARSAL, Lebanon: Relatives of soldiers kidnapped by Islamist militants in Arsal staged a protest Sunday demanding the release of their loved ones, as the Army deployed full force in the northeastern border town.
Blocking the Riyaq-Baalbek road, the protesters urged the Committee of Muslim Scholars to intensify efforts to secure the release of the soldiers. “Tell us where our children are!” shouted one protester. “We support the Army, the Army commander and the state.”
A similar protest was held on the highway leading to Baalbek Saturday.
Overall 19 Army soldiers and around 20 members of the Internal Security Forces were kidnapped by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, who stormed Arsal earlier this month. After five days of clashes with the Army, the militants pulled out from the town under a cease-fire brokered by the Committee of Muslim Scholars. They took the soldiers with them. The soldiers are believed to be either in the outskirts of Arsal or inside Syrian territories.
Footage released Sunday showed eight of the kidnapped soldiers sitting in a room and identifying themselves and their hometowns. Some were in good shape while others looked tired. One of the soldiers had his head bandaged.
Speaking to The Daily Star, an Army source said that the military was verifying the footage.
He said negotiations to release the soldiers were being carried out by Prime Minister Tammam Salam and the Committee of Muslim Scholars.
Sheikh Adnan Amama, a member of the committee, said that a delegation from the group was residing in Arsal, waiting for a mediator to bring them a list of the demands made by the Syrian militants in return for releasing the soldiers.
“The militants are demanding guarantees from the Lebanese state that Syrian refugees in Arsal will not be harmed. They are saying: ‘What if we hand over the soldiers and the next day Syrian refugee camps were raided?’” Amama said.
The preacher explained that progress would be made in the negotiations if the state met this demand.
Amama added that militants have also demanded the release of prisoners in return for freeing the soldiers. “But we do not know exactly who the prisoners they are talking about are yet,” Amama said.
He explained that the committee was waiting for an answer from the militants by Sunday. Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi defended negotiations the committee held with the militants to reach a cease-fire.
“I regret to say that the fact that some media outlets reported that the settlement which happened was a humiliation for the Army and the country. I remind all Lebanese that negotiations took place with the terrorists after they abducted the nuns from Maaloula [kidnapped by Syrian rebels last year], who were freed after tough talks by security officials and a ransom was paid to the captors,” Rifi told reporters after checking on the health of Sheikh Salem Rafei, a member of the committee who was wounded in Arsal last week.
“Similar negotiations took place in Azaz with terrorists who received money to release the abducted Lebanese pilgrims,” he said in reference to Lebanese released last year after being held by Syrian rebels for over a year in the district of Azaz.
“Why were we allowed to negotiate with those abductors and we aren’t allowed to hold talks with the ones that entered Arsal?”
Meanwhile, signs of normality returned to Arsal Sunday, with some shops opening, although traffic remained light. Most residents of the town displaced by the fighting have returned.
Residents of Arsal counted 16 civilians from the town among the dead, some killed while trying to prevent Islamist militants from taking over posts of the Army and ISF. Around 100 people hailing from the town were also wounded during the five-day clashes, most of them suffering slight wounds.
Arsal still has no power and a delegation from the Higher Relief Committee headed by Maj. Gen. Mohammad Kheir visits the town Monday to inspect damage.
The Lebanese Army entered Arsal over the weekend and redeployed in checkpoints that had been overrun by militants a week ago.
Soldiers as well as ISF members were seen patrolling some of the town’s streets, inspecting military headquarters that were heavily damaged during the fighting.