BEIRUT: Negotiators working to gain the release of Lebanese soldiers captured by militants said Tuesday that the matter required decisiveness on the part of the government, as Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi reassured relatives of the troops soldiers that securing their return was of utmost importance to the military. The Army chief met with the families of soldiers captured by Islamist militants, telling them that “the case of the missing soldiers is the main priority of the Army’s leadership,” and would remain at the forefront of its concerns until their members were safely returned to their families.
Kahwagi also commended the courage of soldiers who died during the five-day clashes in the border town of Arsal earlier this month, killing dozens of gunmen and at least 19 soldiers. The fighting was instigated by the arrest of a Syrian opposition commander, Imad Jomaa, who recently pledged allegiance to ISIS.
“Their blood protected Lebanon from division and collapse, and prevented the fire of strife from reaching the heart of the country,” he said.
The militants, part of both the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), are still holding 19 soldiers and 14 members of the Internal Security Forces, but released six policemen a, sign of goodwill to encourage negotiations after the clashes ended.
A delegation comprised of sheikhs from the Muslim Scholars Committee successfully brokered a truce that ended the five-day clashes. The committeeis now mediating between both parties, the government and the militants, to free the remaining security personnel and soldiers. The task, explained Sheikh Hossam al-Ghali, the delegation’s top negotiator, has so far been hindered by misunderstandings and interference from other actors, and the latter threatened to undermine the efforts of the sheikhs.
“Different negotiators are stepping in,” he said. “The negotiation isn’t only being conducted by the Muslim Scholars Committee, there are different negotiators now, and this gives the militants different options and they will choose the one that best suits them.”
So far two Syrian go-betweens are reportedly involved, either directly or tangentially, in negotiations, including a former Free Syrian Army spokesperson Ahmad al-Qusair and Arsal native Shiekh Mustafa Hujeiri. A handful of Syrian clerics are also rumored to be involved, but The Daily Star could not identify them.
From the government side, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Khair, the head of the Higher Relief Committee was representing the government in the negotiations, said Ghali.
The arrests of 12 suspected Syrian militants in and around Arsal last week, as well as charges brought against 43 alleged jihadists, including Jomaa, accused of carrying out terrorist acts and attacking the Army, undercut the trust the group had formed with the militants. Among those charged were commanders of the Nusra Front, ISIS and the Farouk Brigade, the men engaged in negotiations with Ghali and his delegation.
“When the news came, it definitely made the fighters more tense,” he said, referring to the charges. “The raids and arrests, might seem like a small thing, but when the news reaches the fighters it makes them see the military as untrustworthy.”
Once the charges had been pressed the delegation members had to “spend a lot of time” to explain to the militants that the judicial authority differed from the government, and that the latter was still a viable negotiating partner, according to member Sheikh Adnan Amama.
The militants presented a list of demands to the government Monday, the contents of which the group was not permitted to disclose. But Amama confirmed the demands did not “come out of the blue.”
“They are basically humanitarian demands and promises to ensure their safety, and for the government to commit [to the demands],” Amama said. The militants had previously conditioned their withdrawal from Arsal on the protection of Syrian refugees in Arsal. Unconfirmed reports had also circulated that the release of Roumieh prisoners figured prominently in the demands, something Ghali denied. “I can’t disclose anything about the demands, but I can say one thing: The words ‘ Roumieh prison’ were never brought up during the negotiations,” he said.
Amama said the current impediment toward securing the release of the soldiers was the government’s indecision over responding to the militant’s demands.
“The government hasn’t fully decided whether to accept or reject the militants’ demands, they don’t have a clear stance,” he said. “Whereas the militants believe they have a right to their stances because they freed a number of security personnel, but have received nothing in return.”
Another member of the delegation, who requested anonymity, was less diplomatic in his appraisal: “In my personal opinion, the government doesn’t have a plan, and if there is a plan, I don’t know about it.”
Meanwhile, the Future Movement underlined the need for “serious work and an intensive follow-up” in the case of the release of captured soldiers, in a statement issued after the bloc’s weekly meeting. – Additional reporting by Ghinwa Obeid