BEIRUT: The Committee of Muslim Scholars announced Friday the suspension of its mediation to secure the release of 29 Lebanese security personnel held by Islamist militants, in a move that reflected difficulties in the negotiations with the captors and the government’s refusal to meet their demands.
The suspension of the committee’s role also appeared to be aimed at giving a chance for foreign actors to mediate with Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants entrenched on the rugged outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal near the border with Syria.
“The committee has decided in principle to suspend its mediation until better conditions are created and to make way for other parties who may have greater ability to settle this issue,” committee member Sheikh Adnan Amama told reporters after a two-hour meeting with Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the Grand Serail.
Recalling the committee’s role in arranging a cease-fire that ended five days of fierce fighting between the Lebanese Army and the militants in and around Arsal earlier this month, Amama, referring to the captured military and security personnel, said: “This file is so complicated and has many difficulties and bigger challenges than the committee’s ability to handle alone.”
He added that the committee was ready to put its energies at the disposal of Salam, the Cabinet and the Army Command to do “any national and humanitarian duty for Lebanon and the Lebanese.”
Sheikh Hussam al-Ghali, a committee member, said the suspension of mediation efforts resulted from a foreign actor’s intervention in the negotiation process.
“The foreign mediator’s intervention in the operation has yielded initial positive results,” Ghali told The Daily Star by telephone.
He did not disclose the identity of the foreign actor.
But government sources denied that any foreign mediators were involved in the negotiations with the militants. “The government refused to disclose details of the negotiations because of the sensitivity of the issue,” a source told The Daily star.
Ghali said the committee would resume its mediation if the right conditions existed. “When we say right conditions, we mean if a request is issued by the foreign mediator, urging the committee to re-intervene in the negotiations,” he said.
Asked whether the government was receptive to the militants’ demands, Ghali said that “disclosing this information could endanger the lives of the captives.”
“A mediator will deliver the government’s official response to the militants soon,” he added.
Ghali said the committee Friday handed Salam footage of the captured security personnel. He said the footage was filmed by Fajr al-Islam, an ISIS-affiliated militant group that was holding 11 Lebanese soldiers.
“The footage shows the soldiers in good health, delivering messages to their families” Ghali said.
He added that Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) made separate but “similar” demands to the government.
Before entering the meeting with Salam at the head of a five-member Committee of Muslim Scholars, Amama warned that the negotiations would lead nowhere if the government refused to budge on the militants’ demands.
“If the government sticks by the ‘no-compromise’ policy during the meeting, then the door to negotiations would be closed,” Amama said. “The ball is in the prime minister’s court with regard to the file of the military hostages. The committee is waiting for answers to the [militants’] demands.”
The committee had previously cited rumors that Qatar or Turkey might mediate in the talks.
But Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said in remarks published Thursday that Lebanon was working to free the kidnapped soldiers and policemen without the help of any foreign mediators.
On the militants’ reported demands for the release of Islamist detainees held at Roumieh prison, Amama said they had yet to reach the stage of listing exact names.