BEIRUT: As negotiations to free military and security personnel believed to be held by Syria militants face complications, Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi said a maximum of 20 troops were missing, with some feared to be dead.
In comments published in daily Al-Mustaqbal Thursday, Kahwagi said a video addressed to Prime Minister Tammam Salam depicting some of the soldiers captured during battles between the Army and jihadist militants in Arsal is authentic.
“The recording is true, in principle, but we decided not to show it publicly out of respect for the missing soldiers and their families,” Kahwagi said.
“The Lebanese soldiers who are reported missing are at most 20, and we insist on calling them missing, as we fear that some martyrs (dead) could be among them,” Kahwagi added.
He pointed out that the body of a soldier initially reported missing was recovered in Arsal’s outskirts a few days ago, and that the militants showed the body of another soldier in the video that was relayed to the Lebanese authorities Wednesday through the Committee of Muslim scholars involved in the negotiations to free the captives.
Negotiations to free the soldiers believed held by Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Islamic State for Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have reportedly hit an impasse over the militants’ demands to exchange the soldiers for Islamist prisoners and militant leader Imad Ahmad Jomaa, whose arrest on Aug. 2 triggered the fighting in Arsal.
Ahmad al-Qusair, a former spokesperson for the Free Syrian Army acting as the go-between in contacts of the Committee of Muslim Scholars with the militants, gave a gloomy outlook for any imminent solution.
He said in an interview Wednesday with The Daily Star that negotiations were at a standstill because conceding to the militants’ demands would come at too high a cost as far as the Lebanese government was concerned.
Kahwagi, who made a rare visit to Arsal Wednesday, said the majority of the militants, who withdrew from the town under a cease-fire agreement that ended the five-day clashes, had relocated in the rugged mountains straddling the border, whereas only a few had returned to Syria.
“Arsal has returned into the custody of the state, but its outskirt is still relatively kidnapped,” Kahwagi added, vowing to restore state control on the whole area.
In addition to the Lebanese Army soldiers, 17 Internal Security Forces personnel were also captured and held by the Syrian rebels.