ARSAL, Lebanon: Residents of Arsal denied reports Tuesday that Islamist militants had returned to the Bekaa Valley border town, as the Islamic State allegedly threatened to start killing Lebanese security personnel and soldiers taken during clashes there earlier this month.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) issued a statement that could not be independently verified, accusing the Lebanese state of allowing Hezbollah to derail indirect negotiations for the release of the 29 hostages, after the Committee of Muslim Scholars resigned as a mediating body last week.
“You refuse negotiations by [allowing] their crippling and you place pressure on the refugees, and we remind you that we will kill the first soldier after 24 hours and kill another every three days if [Hezbollah] is not [removed] from the negotiations and the Lebanese government does not begin seriously trying to resolve this crisis in which [Hezbollah] has ensnared everyone,” the statement said.
The statement comes a day after Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk dismissed similar threats, reiterating the government’s refusal to give in to ISIS’ demands that the Lebanese state release certain Islamist prisoners and provide assistance and protection for Syrian refugees in Arsal.
Militants from ISIS are holding 11 soldiers, as well as the body of a deceased soldier, a member of the Committee of Muslim Scholars told The Daily Star last week.
Meanwhile, the Nusra Front has 15 Internal Security Forces personnel and three soldiers.
A security source told The Daily Star that at least some hostages were thought to still be in Arsal.
A different security source confirmed to The Daily Star that some armed elements had returned to Arsal surreptitiously through an entrance that was not under Army control, and some of these elements were seeking to use it as a point of entry toward Akkar and Tripoli.
The source said the return of the militants coincided with the Army’s reinforcing its positions in preparation for another face off.
It is thought to be possible that the siege imposed by the Army on the remote border region, where the militants are said to be hiding, may push the gunmen to attack again in an effort to ease the blockade, especially as winter approaches and their chances of survival in the barren mountain region drop.
Another motivation for a fresh attack could be the gunmen’s desire to see their families, many of whom are taking refuge in the camps in and around Arsal.
Residents of Arsal denied reports that extremists had returned to the town to take revenge on some locals accused of assisting the Lebanese Army and security forces.
“How could those militants enter Arsal when the Army has set up checkpoints at all entrances to the town?” said Mohammad Hujeiri, a teacher. “How could they get inside the town without being seen by the Lebanese Army?”
He said the militants were hiding in the remote border region, surrounded on all sides by the Lebanese and Syrian armies and Hezbollah.
Regarding the abduction of local resident Hussein Ibrahim Ghaddadeh from the town about a week ago, Hujeiri said Ghaddadeh was kidnapped for “personal reasons” unrelated to weapons trafficking or the clashes in Arsal.
Community leaders emphasized that the Lebanese Army was the only armed force in Arsal, and condemned the publication of what they considered fear-mongering rumors.
Bakr Hujeiri, the local Future Movement coordinator, said two delegations, one from the International Committee of the Red Cross and another from the U.N., had toured Arsal Tuesday and found no evidence of Syrian opposition gunmen.
He said that names of some local residents had reportedly been circulating among extremist groups who had accused them of assisting the Lebanese Army and security forces, but that none of these people had been subject to attack of any kind, indicating that these were rumors intended to stoke tensions for political purposes.
Khaled Fliti, another resident, said he was surprised by the media reports that militants had returned to the town, and when he asked his friends and neighbors he found that no one had seen anything to support these reports.
“I have not seen any armed men in Arsal since the end of the recent events, but every day I see the Lebanese Army patrols, and all entrances to Arsal are controlled by Lebanese Army soldiers, so how can these gunmen enter Arsal?” he said. “They are in the mountains only.”
“The people of Arsal are still living in fear, because what happened was not only a passing moment, it was a real war,” he continued.
“But the people have great faith in the Army, and these sectarian rumors that cause confusion and spread fear should stop.”