BEIRUT: Prime Minister Tammam Salam launched a scathing attack at politicians and the media for “shamefully” politicizing the Arsal hostage crisis, warning that their irresponsible words and actions could further endanger the soldiers and policemen.
“There have been statements by some politicians and others that only result in tensions and do not help us in confronting the dangerous, imminent security threat that is facing the entire region ... and Lebanon,” Salam, surrounded by reporters, said Wednesday after meeting Speaker Nabih Berri to discuss the issue.
“These kidnapped soldiers are our sons ... because they headed to Arsal, placing their lives at risk, to confront this terror that has no religion, not for a certain group, sect or religion.”
The hostage crisis is expected to top Thursday’s Cabinet session, where ministers will discuss pressing political and security issues from its 60-item agenda.
The government is reportedly considering charging Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim with following up on the case of 29 soldiers and security personnel snatched during clashes with Islamist militants in the Bekaa Valley town earlier this month. Ibrahim, who successfully negotiated the release of other Lebanese hostages held in Syria, would be authorized to communicate with any party that might help secure the men’s release.
The Nusra Front is said to be holding three soldiers and 15 policemen out of the 29 security personnel held hostage by the militant groups. ISIS is holding the 11 others and a corpse of a deceased soldier.
The militants have so far released eight security personnel – five policemen and three soldiers.
Salam said the publication of possible deals by media outlets competing for audience was undermining ongoing negotiations with the captors, “placing the lives of soldiers at risk.”
“Publishing information and details about the release of the soldiers is only complicating the case and disrupting all efforts aimed at their release,” he said. “We have been listening to some statements by the media and politicians distinguishing between Sunni, Shiite and Christian soldiers. This is shameful.”
He said his government was shouldering its responsibility and working relentlessly to guarantee the safety of the soldiers.
“They are defending Lebanon, not a politician!” he said of the soldiers and security personnel.
The prime minister and Berri also discussed possible solutions to end the deadlock over the presidential election and pave the way for parliamentary polls, Salam said.
“It is important to speak with Speaker Berri if someone wants to find solutions to the crises, primarily the big constitutional crisis [that is] the inability of political forces to elect a new president for the republic,” the prime minister said.
“Contacts and efforts are ongoing, but time is running out and the country is paying a high price for this paralysis in the presidency in terms of its security and livelihood,” he continued. “The security threat comprises the biggest share [in the price people are paying]. There are [people] who seek to inflict damage on Lebanon and the Lebanese.”
U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly also weighed in on the presidential stalemate, emphasizing the U.N.’s keenness to see the election of a new president during talks with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai. The talks were part of a larger meeting of eastern bishops and representatives of the five permanent members at the U.N. Security Council.
“We ... agreed that a prolonged vacuum in the presidency would be a matter of grave concern,” Plumbly said, reaffirming a position taken two months ago. “The urgency of this issue should, I think, be really obvious to everybody.”
Rai, for his part, denied that he supported any candidate in particular as he prepared to leave Thursday for the Vatican.
Separately, Berri expressed hope that talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran would yield positive results for the entire Middle East.
“I am counting on the Saudi-Iranian meeting to fight off the danger facing the region,” Berri said during his weekly meeting with lawmakers. “We also hope that additional circumstances exist to face off the threat of terrorism.”
Another way to confront terrorism, according to Berri, was to encourage dialogue and “open a window for Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.”
His comments came after Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian held what he called a “positive and constructive” meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Riyadh Tuesday as the two regional rivals seek to counter Islamist militants in Iraq.
The lightning offensive by ISIS, which seized wide swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, has spurred renewed contact among many rival groups that now consider the militant group their common enemy.
In addition to security and political concerns, Thursday’s Cabinet session is also expected to touch on the power lines which have sparked tensions with residents of Mansourieh, who believe they are damaging to their health.
The Daily Star has also learned that Salam will head a Lebanese delegation to the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 23. The delegation will include Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Lebanese Ambassador to Washingon Antoine Shadid, Lebanese Ambassador to the U.N. Nawaf Salam and a small press corp.