BEIRUT: The Lebanese government approved Thursday a $1 billion Saudi grant to modernize security services in their fight against terrorism, as the country’s military prosecutor charged 43 alleged militants with crimes connected to recent battles in the border town of Arsal.
But the charges appeared to set back negotiations to free Army soldiers and Internal Security Forces personnel held captive by jihadists from the Nusra Front during the clashes, as they postponed issuing demands in exchange for the hostages.
“The Cabinet accepted the in-kind grant which consists of equipment and weapons for the Army and the security forces worth $1 billion offered by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige said after a Cabinet session at the Grand Serail.
Ministerial sources told The Daily Star that the Saudi donation will be spent to buy the equipment directly by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has been entrusted by the Saudi government to ensure the proper disbursement of the aid.
Outgoing Saudi Ambassador Ali Saeed Asiri said after visiting the Union of Journalists that the mechanism for spending the aid will avoid delays due to bureaucracy.
Although no public statement was made on the missing Army and security forces personnel believed to be held by ISIS and the Nusra Front, discussion of the issue took center stage during the Cabinet session.
Some 19 Army troops in addition to 17 ISF personnel were captured and believed to be held by militants who launched an incursion into Arsal Aug. 2, taking over the town and withdrawing five days later under a cease-fire agreement.
Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr pressed ahead with charges against 43 jihadists, including militant commander Imad Jomaa, over the battles.
Saqr accused the alleged militants of carrying out terrorist acts, attacking the Army, and killing and kidnapping soldiers and policemen.
A judicial source told The Daily Star that only 10 of the suspects were in custody – one Lebanese and nine Syrians. The others, including four Lebanese and 29 Syrians, remain at large. They face the death penalty if convicted.
Saqr referred the suspects to Investigative Judge Riad Abu Ghayda for interrogation.
In response, the Nusra Front postponed issuing a set of demands in exchange for the captives, said Sheikh Adnan Amama, a member of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, a gathering of Sunni religious officials involved in the negotiations.
Amama told The Daily Star that a mediator with the Nusra Front conveyed the group’s “extreme irritation” at Saqr’s move, though he said the negotiations will likely continue.
Amama criticized the government for not making more positive overtures to speed up the negotiations.
In a sign of growing concern over the proliferation of militant groups, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale said his country would expedite military assistance to the Army.
“ U.S. military assistance will begin arriving in the next few weeks and will continue in the months to follow,” Hale said. “This assistance will enhance the Lebanese Army’s ability to secure Lebanon’s borders, protect Lebanon’s people and fight extremist groups.”
Hale said the coming deliveries, made in response to a request for emergency assistance, would include munitions and ordnance, of a defensive and offensive nature.
Hezbollah Minister Mohammad Fneish welcomed the U.S. aid, saying the party welcomes any donation that bolsters the military.
And in an interview with Al-Akhbar newspaper to be published Friday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said: “Turkey and Qatar are supporting ISIS, and I am convinced that Saudi Arabia fears it.”
Separately, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil flew to Saudi Arabia to meet with Hariri, according to Al-Markazya news agency.