BEIRUT/TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A video emerged Wednesday purporting to show an Army defector announcing that he had joined the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, citing the Lebanese authorities’ alleged discrimination against Sunnis as his motive.
“I have split from the Lebanese Army because, like any other soldier, I know well that the Army is a tool in the hand of the Hizb [Hezbollah],” a man claiming to be Atef Mohammad Saadeddine said in the video, which was posted on Nusra Front’s official YouTube channel.
The soldier, who is in his early 20s, initially went missing in the Bekaa Valley Monday evening, with local media reporting that he had been kidnapped by the Nusra Front, a Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda that is currently battling President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Authorities later discovered that the soldier had left with the militants of his own volition.
In the video, Saadeddine, who hails from the province of Akkar, shows his Lebanese Army identification card and accuses the Army of taking orders from Hezbollah and discriminating against Lebanese Sunnis. The Nusra Front’s flag can be seen in the background.
“When they build a checkpoint in a Sunni area, they smother it [the area] completely,” he said. “While in the southern suburbs, they do not dare erect any checkpoint unless Hezbollah has given the order.”
The development comes days after security forces pressed forth with a major crackdown on militant leaders in the north, arresting a top militia commander Hussam al-Sabbagh and killing a man accused of supplying suicide bombers with explosives in a dramatic weekend raid.
But Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk emphasized during an iftar at his ministry later Wednesday that the Lebanese state would carry on with its security plans in various Lebanese regions.
“None of us will stand in the way of the state when it is carrying out its duties,” he told his guests. “We are [careful] not to blindly support any [of our] security apparatuses. We stand by justice, justice in its highest forms.
Saadeddine said Hezbollah had directed its force against Lebanon’s Sunnis and yet had not fired a single bullet toward Israel in light of the Gaza offensive.
“What resistance are they talking about? Resistance against the Sunni people?” he asked.
Several March 14 MPs told The Daily Star Wednesday that at least 10 other soldiers were known to have left the Lebanese Army to join the Syrian rebels, including a commanding officer.
They accused authorities of imposing a news blackout on the “defection” until the Army had confirmed that the soldiers had fled.
But a senior military official categorically denied the claims.
“These reports are totally baseless. Had it been true, the Nusra Front would have broadcast videos about these soldiers’ alleged defections,” the official told The Daily Star.
He said the Army command would treat Saadeddine as “a fugitive soldier.”
“A military court will look into his case and decide on a penalty,” the official said.
Explaining why he decided to leave the Army, Saadeddine highlighted the detention of numerous Sunni youths and the miserable conditions in which they were kept, a sore point for many in Lebanon and the driving force behind growing unrest in the northern city of Tripoli.
He accused the Army of treating Sunni sheikhs poorly and said the military “interrogates and physically abuses” Sunnis – even the wounded – at checkpoints.
In the six-minute video, Saadeddine also called on his former colleagues to follow his lead.
“Don’t think about the salary you are receiving at the end of the month, think about your religion. Because what happened to Syrians will happen to you; your parents, family and children will become homeless and you will live in tents,” Saadeddine said, addressing “soldiers and commanders” in the Army.
“Wake up, soldier, and think about your religion and your sect,” he added.
The video ended with a slow-motion scene showing a black-clad Nusra Front member embracing Saadeddine and kissing his forehead to a soundtrack of Quranic music.
North Lebanon MP Khaled Daher said he did not have additional information on the video, nor was he aware of any soldiers from Akkar defecting.
But he pointed out to his previous warnings against the security plan imposed in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley, repeating his belief that they were unnecessarily pressuring Sunnis. He said things would escalate dangerously if officials did not address “the violation of the Sunni arena.”
“We warned against the Army being turned into a Hezbollah tool,” he added.
Akkar MP Mouin Merhebi agreed that the defection reflected the Army command’s actions: “I believe that this [incident] is just the start, as what we saw today shows we are living in an unspoken military coup – purportedly lead by Lebanese Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi but Hezbollah is the operator.”
Also 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, with the aim of preventing rebels from infiltrating the country.
In April, Syrian forces backed by allied fighters from Hezbollah retook control of most of Qalamoun, a mountainous region bordering Lebanon. But Syrian activists say hundreds of opposition fighters have taken refuge in the caves and hills in the border area, using it as a rear base from which to launch attacks inside Syria.
Hezbollah and the Syrian army have now launched an attack in a bid to finish off the pockets of rebel resistance. Airborne Lebanese troops have also been conducting thorough searches along the Lebanese side of the border Wednesday.
The National News Agency said the combing operations were carried out in the mountains east of Ras Baalbek and Fakiha, and to the north of Arsal, from dawn until midday.
“The troops, backed by the air force, searched hideouts which can be used by infiltrators and outlaws, including caves, hills, paths and side roads,” the NNA said.
Heavy gunfire was heard as the troops combed the border area.