FNAYDEQ, Lebanon: Lebanon bid farewell Wednesday to a slain soldier who was beheaded by militants in a massive, emotional funeral brimming with anguish over his killing.
First Sergeant Ali al-Sayyed was laid to rest in his hometown of Fnaydeq surrounded by thousands of Akkar residents and his family, who called for a “revolution” until the 23 soldiers and policemen held captive by militants from ISIS and the Nusra Front are released.
“We will not remain silent until they return safely home,” said the uncle of Sayyed, looking visibly distressed as his nephew’s motorcade – headed to his hometown Fnaydeq – reached Mhammara.
“Our revolution begins today and it will not stop,” the uncle vowed, as the motorcade drove past a grieving crowd that included Sayyed’s crying father.
“People, stand by us. We call on you to [join] the revolution of dignity, to free those who defend dignity,” he said.
Sayyed and the other captives were taken hostage by the militants in the runup to, and during, a brief takeover of the town of Arsal near the Syrian border last month that was repelled by the Lebanese Army. The militants have demanded the release of Islamist prisoners held in Roumieh Prison in exchange for the hostages.
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi said there was no deal to exchange the prisoners for the Army soldiers and Internal Security Forces members, but said Lebanon must speed up the trials of detained Islamists held for years without sentences.
Rifi also said Prime Minister Tammam Salam had formed a “crisis cell” to handle the hostage file.
“We will not abandon our sons,” the prime minister said after a meeting with new Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian.
In an escalatory move, the families of the soldiers are planning to hold a protest at the Grand Serail at 10 a.m. Thursday, the first time they have protested in Beirut.
The funeral of Sayyed occurred as Russia pledged to help the Army modernize in the wake of the Arsal battles and the March 14 coalition stressed the need to protect Lebanon’s borders against incursions. The Cabinet is also set to discuss the security situation and the hostage crisis Thursday.
The Russian ambassador to Lebanon confirmed that the two countries were discussing possible formulas for military cooperation, without disclosing any details on the possible deal.
“There is some news on many media outlets about technical military cooperation, but I am not tasked with disclosing any detail about it,” Alexander Zasypkin said after meeting Youth and Sports Minister Abdul-Muttaleb al-Hinawi. “I sum up by confirming that negotiations concerning this are taking place, and we hope that positive results come out in the near future.”
“The terrorist threat does not only target Lebanon, it is a problem for everyone,” Zasypkin said.
His comments came two days after political sources told The Daily Star that former Prime Minister Saad Hariri had revived a 2010 arms grant from Moscow that would provide the military with helicopters and tanks.
The Army announced Wednesday night that it had seized machine guns, hand grenades, ammunition and military gear during a raid targeting the home of a Syrian man in the Zahrieh neighborhood in Tripoli.
The growing alarm over the terrorist threat on the border from ISIS and the Nusra Front and its security repercussions came as news emerged that Hezbollah-backed Syrian troops ambushed a convoy belonging to the Nusra Front, killing a commander responsible for last year’s kidnapping of Syrian nuns, according to a Lebanese security source.The convoy was headed by Malek al-Tall, a Nusra Front commander, who was killed in the ambush in the Qalamoun, a mountainous region bordering Lebanon, the source told The Daily Star.
Tall was allegedly responsible for the abduction of 13 nuns last year, when the radical rebel group took over the historic Christian town of Maaloula, located on the edge of the rugged Qalamoun region about 60 km northeast of the Syrian capital. Head of Lebanon’s General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim played a vital role in the release of the nuns, who were freed in May in exchange for dozens of female detainees in Syrian prisons.
Qatar and the Syrian government also played a part in their release.
Hezbollah fighters and Syrian regime troops had launched an offensive earlier this year to root out rebel groups from the Qalamoun region, a strategic area for opposition groups that was used to smuggle gunmen and weapons.
Hezbollah’s TV station Al-Manar aired footage that it claimed was taken in Qalamoun of cars as well as explosive caches, ammunition and Nusra Front jihadist manifestos hidden in a mountain cave. The channel said the vehicles were going to be rigged and sent into Lebanon to carry out suicide bombings. The cars were destroyed by the Syrian Army, whose soldiers also took over the cave, the channel said.
News of the clashes and the alleged car bomb factory emerged as the March 14 coalition called for the protection of the country’s border with Syria in the wake of the growing threat posed by Islamist extremists from the neighboring country.
March 14 also questioned the lack of response to its request to protect the border with the help of U.N. peacekeeping troops.
Speaking at a news conference on March 14’s behalf, Future Movement MP Ahmad Fatfat criticized both Parliament and the previous government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, blaming them for neglecting the coalition’s repeated calls for border control and the deployment of the Lebanese Army.
“Today we reiterate the need for a rescue plan,” Fatfat said, after rehashing the dates and contents of the requests made by March 14 over the past few years.
“The previous government was the one that refused to take any action to protect the northern border with Syria, and we are reaping the results today,” Fatfat argued.
Meanwhile, U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly said after meeting Salam that the two discussed the security situation in Lebanon, as well as the international efforts to support the country.
“I expressed the solidarity of the United Nations with the government, the security forces and the families of the personnel held hostage by violent extremist groups,” he said. “We, of course, also discussed the urgent assistance being offered by U.N. member states to Lebanon through its security forces in the face of these challenges.”