BEIRUT/BAALBEK, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army said Thursday night it could neither confirm nor deny a claim by a member of ISIS that the militant group had beheaded one of 11 soldiers it captured earlier this month following clashes in the northeastern town of Arsal.
The images of what appears to be the beheading of Ali Sayyed were heavily circulated on social media Thursday evening.
“Now you know who are the lions of ISIS,” tweeted Abou Misaab Hafid al-Baghdadi, who claimed to be an ISIS member, linking a gruesome picture showing Sayyed’s beheading.
The victim, Ali Sayyed, is an Army soldier originally from the northern district of Akkar. He was among the 29 soldiers and Internal Security Forces (ISF) personnel captured by Islamist militants during the clashes with the Army in Arsal.
A senior Army official said the military was investigating reports on the alleged beheading of Sayyed.
“We can neither deny nor confirm the report on the soldier’s beheading. We are still checking the report,” the official told The Daily Star Thursday night.
In his tweet, Baghdadi said: “Your brothers in ISIS behead an Army soldier after Hezbollah attempted to disrupt negotiations. And if this [disruption] happens again, then another [soldier] will be beheaded.”
He added that either a statement or a video will be released by what he described as an “official institution” that would confirm the act.
Sayyed’s father is a mukhtar of the village of Fneideq, and three of his brothers are currently enlisted in the Army, a security source said.
A video, which was released by ISIS and aired by LBCI TV last week, showed Sayyed alongside six other Army hostages held captive by ISIS.
Among the demands was the release of ISIS-affiliated prisoners from Lebanese prisons, as well as respecting the rights of Syrian refugees. ISIS also threatened to kill one soldier every three days starting Aug. 26, when the statement was issued, if its demands were not met.
Sayyed’s brutal murder means that the number of Army hostages held by ISIS is now 10. ISIS is now allegedly holding two corpses from the Lebanese Army, after earlier reports cited that one corpse was among the 11 hostages. The Nusra Front is said to be holding 15 ISF captives and three Army hostages.
Earlier Thursday, the Army clashed with Islamist militants on the outskirts of Arsal after a military unit was ambushed, in the second serious incident this month, marking the worst spillover of the war in Syria into Lebanese territory.
The renewed clashes between the Army and Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants erupted when the Cabinet was meeting to discuss, among other things, how to secure the release of the hostages.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk sounded the alarm during the meeting about the serious threat posed to the country’s security by ISIS.
Machnouk, according to Education Minister Elias Bou Saab, warned that militants, estimated in their thousands, have crossed the Lebanese border.
The Army said in a statement that the fighting erupted when a military vehicle with five soldiers on board was ambushed by “terrorist gunmen” at around 11 a.m. in the border village of Al-Rahwe.
The Army launched a counterattack during which it rescued four soldiers, while one soldier was wounded and another went missing, the statement said.
It added that troops also destroyed an armored vehicle belonging to the militants that was equipped with a 23mm anti-aircraft gun, and killed and wounded an unspecified number of gunmen.
The Army then rushed reinforcements to the village and Arsal to prevent a militant advance, security sources said. Armored vehicles and military trucks, carrying dozens of soldiers, were seen driving through the main entrance of Arsal and heading toward its mountainous outskirts.
While the Cabinet was in session at the Grand Serail, Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi spoke by telephone with Prime Minister Tammam Salam to brief him on the security situation in Arsal, Information Minister Ramzi Joreige told reporters after the meeting.
Addressing the ordeal of the captured soldiers and policemen, Salam, according to Joreige, said: “This is a sensitive and delicate issue that should be pursued with complete secrecy in order to protect the safety of these soldiers. Hence, responsibility calls for full solidarity inside the Cabinet in order to consolidate security and liberate the kidnapped soldiers.”
The military bombarded militant positions in Aqabat al-Jurd, hours after the Army shelled militant hideouts in Wadi Hmeid, Wadi Zaarour and Aqabit Nouh, in the deep highlands of Arsal, security sources said.
Meanwhile, an armed Syrian was killed and two others were wounded after a van carrying 10 Syrians and three Lebanese crossed into Lebanon illegally through the Wadi Ata village in Rashaya, east of the country, according to a security source.
Although the group failed to stop at a military checkpoint, it was not clear whether the Lebanese Army or a group of local gunmen fired at the van.
The Army pressed on with its crackdown on terror, arresting six suspects in the Bekaa village of Suweiri for their links to terrorist groups.
The Army also detained Mohammad Barakat, a Lebanese, on suspicion of belonging to the Nusra Front after images of Barakat battling alongside Nusra rebels were found by Army intelligence, a source told The Daily Star.
Barakat is also wanted for assaulting soldiers and for several other security incidents in Suweiri.
The Army’s anti-terror campaign also spread to a nearby refugee camp, where five Syrians were detained for alleged links to terrorist groups.