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ISIS delivers video of captured soldiers

Kahwagi addresses troops in Army barracks in Labweh, Wednesday, August 13, 2014. (The Daily Star/ Lebanese Army, HO)

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.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 14, 2014, on page 3.

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