BEIRUT: Video footage of seven Lebanese soldiers held captive by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was released over the weekend, as Army units in Arsal went on high alert after the murder of a militant-linked local. The video, broadcast by LBCI TV on its website, begins with seven Army troops stating their names and ranks. It was released just one day after a video of policemen and troops detained by the Nusra Front was circulated online.
The latest video was delivered to the Lebanese government via the Muslim Scholars Committee, which recently stepped back as mediators for the release of the abducted security personnel.
LBCI reported that a list of four other names had been released by the Abu Hasan al-Falastini group, an ISIS-affiliated militant brigade, shortly after the video was released. The four men were later transferred to ISIS, taking the number of abducted soldiers held by the Islamic State to 11.
A video of eight abducted ISF members and one kidnapped Army member was released by the Nusra Front Friday, in which the abducted members delivered a variation of the same message, demanding that Hezbollah withdraw from Syria to secure their release.
The Nusra Front is believed to be holding three soldiers and 15 policemen, out of the total 29 security personnel and troops held hostage by the militant groups. ISIS is also said to be holding the body of a slain soldier.
The militants have so far released eight security personnel, including five policemen and three soldiers.
After the Muslim Scholars Committee announced Friday the suspension of its mediation, a move that reflected the challenges in negotiating between the committee and the government, it was unclear which party, whether local or external, would resume efforts.
The suspension of the committee’s role also appeared to be aimed at giving a chance to 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.
When asked about the identity of potential local mediators, committee member Adnan Amama told The Daily Star the militants had go-betweens of their own who were also following up on the case with the government. He denied allegations that the militants were demanding safe passage for singer-turned-Salafist militant Fadel Shaker and the fugitive Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese Army went on full alert in Arsal after a resident, believed to have links with the militants, was killed by locals in a clash that took place Saturday night, a security source told The Daily Star.
Armed individuals, alleged to be militants, attempted to track down the murderers in Arsal, the source said. The source also cited “irregular activity” in Arsal’s outskirts, including motorcycles and a pickup truck leaving the town and heading toward the militant hideout further afield.
In response to the activity, the Army reinforced its positions in the town, erecting checkpoints and dispatching patrols.
Responding to critics who scorned the military for taking too long to end the Arsal clashes earlier this month, Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi hit back in comments published Saturday, saying he had spared the lives of Arsal residents and Syrian refugees by refraining from striking Arsal.
“There are 120,000 people, residents and Syria refugees, in Arsal. Did they want me to destroy Arsal and kill Lebanese and refugees?” Kahwagi told a local Lebanese daily Saturday.
He said 190 brigades from Syrian militants took part in the organized attack, but that the Army acted decisively, “so stop ridiculing the battle because if we did not succeed, the results would have been horrifying for Lebanon.”
At least 60 militants were killed, in addition to 19 troops and over 15 civilians in five days of clashes triggered by the arrest of a Syrian militant, Imad Jomaa, on Aug. 2.
At the beginning of the Arsal clashes, lawmakers from the Future bloc had accused Kahwagi, seen as a favorable presidential candidate, of exploiting the battles for his own gain. Kahwagi dismissed the accusations as “distractions” that he said were shamefully “politicizing a military issue.”
The Future Movement’s Arsal and Hermel bureaus jointly condemned the “assault and arrest of people’s freedom,” referring to the captured soldiers, adding that “such a thing is rejected regardless of who is carrying out the act, whether it be an armed group, a political party or even individuals, families or tribes.”
They also called for the release of all kidnapped Lebanese and captured soldiers held by militant groups.
The statement condemned armed groups operating in Lebanon, and in Arsal specifically. It called on militant groups situated in the border town to withdraw immediately to Syria.
It also denounced the involvement of Lebanese groups in Syria, especially Hezbollah, calling for the latter to retreat from the embattled country at once.