BEIRUT: The Nusra Front and ISIS are still holding 27 Lebanese servicemen hostage, Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi said, warning that the jihadists were seeking to gain access to the sea through Lebanese territory.
Speaking in an interview published Friday in French daily Le Figaro, Kahwagi said the Army had dealt painful hits to the militant groups in the Arsal area but its action remained restrained because of the hostage crisis.
“We should be very careful [given] that we still have 27 personnel still in their hands,” Kahwagi said, in the first official count of the number of hostages, which comes more than two months after more than 30 soldiers were seized by Nusra Front and ISIS militants during fighting with the Army in Arsal.
Three captives have since been executed and seven released. The captors are reportedly seeking to swap the hostages with Islamists detainees in Roumieh prison.
Kahwagi said ISIS wanted to have a safe access to the sea, “a matter that it could not achieve either in Syria, or Iraq, but thinks it could be possible in Lebanon.”
He argued that the jihadi militant group was seeking to link its positions in Syria’s rugged Qalamoun region on the eastern border with Lebanon with the coast through Arsal and north Lebanon’s Akkar region.
“ISIS is relying for support on dormant cells in Tripoli and Akkar, in addition to certain political forces in the Sunni community [to achieve their schemes],” Kahwagi said, stressing that “the Army succeeded in repelling the militants [in Arsal] and pushing them back to the mountains.”
“Had they succeeded in their schemes, a civil war would have flared in Lebanon,” Kahwagi warned.
The commander denied accusations that the Army had harassed Syrian refugees in retaliation for ISIS and Nusra Front attacks on troops in Arsal: “We do distinguish between refugees and terrorists.”
He noted, however, that certain militants sought shelter inside the refugee camps in Arsal, which, he said, explains the use of excessive force against some refugees.
“Our troops might have been harsh with some [refugees], but such reaction is understandable in view of the torture to which they [militants] subjected our soldiers,” Kahwagi added.
Kahwagi said the Army needed to buttress its Air Force to enable it to combat militants in a more effective way.
“We are short of helicopter gunships and aerial support for our ground forces. We have managed to equip our Puma helicopters, which were previously provided by France, with rockets, but we need more sophisticated arms,” Kahwagi said.