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Lebanon mulls prisoner exchange deal

Lebanese army soldier Wael Darwish, center, who was captured by militants earlier this month in Arsal, celebrates with his relatives and friends after his release, in Chehim village, Mount Lebanon province, Lebanon, Sunday, Aug 31, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT: Lebanese political and security figures are mulling the possibility of releasing certain Islamist detainees in a bid to secure the release of captured Army troops and security personnel, after five hostages were released Sunday by the Nusra Front.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam announced the formation of an emergency cell to tackle the issue of the abducted men. The cell was made up of senior security and political officials and held its first meeting Sunday.

The presence at the meeting of Magistrate Jean Fahed, the head of the Higher Judicial Council who oversees the trials of Islamist prisoners in Roumieh, was “very significant,” political sources told The Daily Star. They explained that Fahed’s attendance indicated the government’s willingness to seek out his opinion, as the release of the prisoners tops the militants’ demands.

During the meeting, Fahed told attendees that the trials were underway, and 22,000 out of the 36,000 total charges pressed against Islamist detainees had been processed, with some acquittals. The sources said discussions focused on finding a “legal exit” strategy, in which Lebanon could release some Roumieh prisoners inconspicuously, in a manner that would not suggest a connection with the case of the captured soldiers.

The officials were expressly looking into releasing detainees who had not been charged, the source said.

“The negotiations need thorough examination before anything can be decided,” Defense Minister Samir Moqbel told reporters after the meeting. “All files are being examined from a political, judicial and social perspective and the right decision will be made at the right moment.”

Earlier, in a meeting with the families of the abducted troops at his Moseitbeh residence, Salam had said the cell would work away from the media spotlight and “make contacts with internal and foreign actors who can assist with the case.” He warned that “results won’t come quickly.”

At least 29 Army troops and Internal Security Forces personnel were captured by militants belonging to factions allied with the Nusra Front and ISIS during the five-day clashes in Arsal earlier this month. Through the mediation efforts of the Muslim Scholars Committee, several men were released and at least 24 remain in captivity.

The militants have submitted a list of demands to the government, including the release of prisoners. However, sources said the government had conditioned the acquittal of detainees on the release of the captured troops and policemen first.

Soldiers Ibrahim Shaaban, Ahmad Ghieh and Wael Darwish were reunited with their families in Arsal Sunday morning, according to the state-run National News agency. The night before, the three, along with ISF member Saleh al-Baradei and soldier Mohammad al-Qaderi, had been turned over by the Nusra Front to Sheikh Mustaphan Hujeiri, who had worked to secure their release.

The five appeared on LBC TV Sunday morning, thanking Hujeiri for his efforts to secure their release and expressing gratitude over their safe arrival to Arsal.

“The release of the five hostages came without concessions or conditions,” Hujeiri said. The Arsal local stressed the release of the captives “was not part of the negotiations.”

Hujeiri said Shiite hostages captured by Nusra were in “a more difficult position” than the rest of the hostages, hinting that the militant group had set high conditions for their release, as the group had issued a warning to Hezbollah over the lives of its Shiite hostages earlier Sunday.

“Any participation of Hezbollah in battles against us [Nusra] during our liberation of Qalamoun will prompt us to kill our Shiite hostages,” the group said in a statement.

The statement said a military operation in Syria’s Qalamoun region would begin in a “few days,” warning that hostages would be killed as a result of Hezbollah’s intervention. The release of two Christian hostages, set for Monday, was also delayed. The militant group warned Lebanon’s Christians that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun was leading Christians into a war with Sunnis.

“After the burning of Islamic slogans in Ashrafieh, that offer [to free Christians] is no longer on the table,” Hujeiri said, referring to an incident in Sassine Square, pictures of which were circulated on social media Saturday.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk told Al-Jadeed television station he was working to secure the release the Christian hostages.

Of the two militant groups holding security personnel captive, ISIS has adopted a more hard-line approach, threatening to kill its captives unless the government releases Islamist detainees. A man claiming to be a member recently posted a picture allegedly showing the beheading of soldier Ali Sayyed.

Mario Abou Zeid, of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said that Nusra’s more cooperative approach was due to the fact that it enjoyed more sympathizers and connections among Lebanon’s hard-line Sunni community, “whereas the Sunni community in Lebanon is not enabling for ISIS.”

“This is why Nusra is very careful about how it treats its hostages,” he said.

A Free Syria Army source acquainted with the militants said Nusra’s demands had taken the plight of refugees into consideration, while ISIS was adamant on the Roumieh prisoners.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 01, 2014, on page 1.

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