BEIRUT: The government was tight-lipped Thursday over negotiations to free military and security personnel held by jihadists, as the Muslim Scholars Committee hinted it might suspend its mediation if no response was given to the captors’ demands.
Committee member Sheikh Adnan Amama said the scholars were waiting for Lebanon’s official answer to the demands, put forward by militants from Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, to free 29 Lebanese Army soldiers and Internal Security Forces members who were seized during clashes in the border town of Arsal in early August.
“We are still awaiting an answer from the government. Depending on the response, we will decide whether to continue with our mediation initiative or suspend it, which will open the way for other parties to intervene,” Amama told The Daily Star.
Sheikh Hussam al-Ghali, top negotiator with the committee, reiterated Amama’s comments, adding that a meeting with Prime Minister Tammam Salam Friday would determine “whether we will continue to mediate between the two parties.”
The government adopted a taciturn approach and did not disclose its stance over the ongoing negotiations. Head of the Higher Relief Committee Maj. Gen. Mohammad Khair, who is representing the government in talks, refused to comment to The Daily Star, saying he could not discuss the issue of the captured soldiers and security personnel.
Likewise, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk refused to disclose his position on the subject. “He prefers to keep all matters related to the issue confidential,” said a ministry source, requesting anonymity.
The committee was reportedly weighing the option of withdrawing from their role as intermediaries after the interior minister told a local newspaper this week that the government would not make “compromises” with the militants, and after rumors circulated that external actors would step in to influence the outcome of discussions.
“The negotiation process will necessitate that both parties reach a middle ground with respect to their demands,” Ghali said. He denied the involvement of other local mediators, adding: “We have heard rumors that there are foreign mediators,” and alleging that, “Qatar or Turkey may possibly be taking on that role.”
However, Machnouk said in remarks published Thursday that Lebanon was working to free the kidnapped soldiers and policemen without the help of a foreign mediator. Last year, Qatar, with mediation from General Security head Abbas Ibrahim, played a crucial role in the release of nine Lebanese pilgrims taken hostage by rebel groups in Syria.
“Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim is not heading negotiations or contacts with any regional or Arab country for the case of the kidnapped soldiers,” Machnouk told Al-Akhbar newspaper. “Such a task would require ... a government decision.” His remarks refuted those of Kataeb Party head Amine Gemayel, who said last week Lebanon had requested the help of some Arab countries.
Apart from the government’s position, the details of the demands made by the rebel groups have been shrouded in secrecy as well, by both officials and mediators. While the Muslim Scholars Committee denies that the release of Roumieh prison inmates factors into the conditions set by the militants, other sources acquainted with the fighters claim that they figure prominently.
Other demands are believed to include improved treatment for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and security assurances for the militants, who are in hiding in Arsal’s outskirts. LBCI reported Wednesday that the militants said they would release the captives if Hezbollah withdrew its fighters from Syria.
Ghali said that some of the demands would be relatively easy for the government to comply with, but that others “would be hard to carry out.”
A Syrian go-between told The Daily Star that the release of inmates in Roumieh prison was a key request. He claimed the “conditions of the negotiations” might have obliged them to publicly trivialize its importance.
Another source in contact with the militants also said the issue of the Roumieh prisoners was among the demands, as was the release of their commander, Imad Jomaa, whose arrest instigated the Arsal clashes. “The release of detained Syrian prisoners, and especially Imad Jomaa, is among the requests,” said the source, a member of a Free Syrian Army battalion taking refuge in the outskirts of Arsal, who identifies himself as Abu Arab.