BEIRUT: A Lebanese soldier has joined the ranks of rebel groups fighting in Syria, a security source told The Daily Star Tuesday, the first such known case since war broke out in the neighboring country in 2011.
The solider initially went missing in the Bekaa Valley Monday evening, with some media outlets reporting his abduction by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Authorities later discovered that the soldier had left with the militants voluntarily.
The Army reportedly lost track of the soldier, who was identified by his initials A.S.D., on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal, a predominantly Sunni town that supports the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
An Army source played down the significance of the incident, telling The Daily Star the soldier had decided to leave his post and that such things “happened often.”
Over the weekend, the Lebanese Army heavily deployed along the porous northeastern border with Syria and set up new posts in a number of villages in the Baalbek-Hermel region, including Arsal, to prevent rebels from infiltrating the country.
The move comes as the Syrian Army and Hezbollah tightened the noose on armed rebels in Qalamoun, a mountainous region bordering Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war is highly contentious, with the party’s opponents accusing security agencies of turning a blind eye to the group’s military role in Syria and cracking down on supporters of the uprising against Assad.
Also Tuesday, Army troops conducted raids in the Bekaa Valley town of Brital in search of a Syrian national who was kidnapped and held for ransom along with two others, the National News Agency said.
The NNA said the Army raided houses in the town in its search for Zeidan Hamad. His kidnappers are demanding a ransom of $500,000.
Syrian brothers Khalil and Abdul-Karim al-Ali, who were kidnapped along with Zeidan Monday, were released in Hallanieh near Baalbek later that night in exchange for a $20,000 ransom.
General Security officers also arrested two Syrian women at Lebanon’s border after they allegedly attempted to sneak a girl into Syria with fake documents.
“General Security arrested F.M. and S.A. when they were leaving to Syria through the Abboudieh border crossing for attempting to smuggle a girl into Syria with documents that did not belong to her,” a General Security statement said.
According to the El-Nashra news website, the Lebanese Army also reportedly arrested a Nusra Front commander Monday at a hospital in the Bekaa Valley.
It said the Army arrested the militant while he was being treated for wounds that were likely sustained during clashes on Arsal’s outskirts.
Separately, a lawyer for a suspect accused of firing rockets into Israel sent a request to Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi and State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud asking that his client be released on the grounds that attacks on the country fell under the protective umbrella of the resistance.
“What [Hussein] Atweh has done is a resistance act against the Israeli enemy, guaranteed by the ministerial statement of the current government that gave every Lebanese the right to resist until the occupied land is liberated,” Tareq Shandab said in his request.
“Firing rockets into Israel falls within the framework of resistance against Israel. There should not be selectivity when it comes to the resistance and for one party to do so while others are punished.”
Shandab said Atweh had been detained for 12 days without charge – well over the 48 hours stipulated in Article 47 of the Criminal Trials Law – and demanded his release.
He called on the judiciary to treat Atweh “as a resistance fighter.”
The justice minister promised he would look into the matter.
The Lebanese Army arrested Atweh, a member of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, earlier this month at a hospital in the Bekaa Valley. He reportedly confessed to being behind the firing of one of several rockets from south Lebanon that landed in Israel in recent weeks, prompting the Jewish state to retaliate and fire at least 25 artillery shells at southern Lebanese villages.
Atweh told interrogators that he had fired the rocket in response to Israel’s aggression against Gaza.