BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Cabinet Thursday rejected demands by radical groups to swap captured soldiers with Islamist detainees, giving the Army the green light to launch a military operation to release the troops.
“The Cabinet unanimously agreed that the safety of our kidnapped soldiers cannot be subject to compromise, negligence or swap,” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige told reporters after the Cabinet session, which was convened to formulate a plan to secure the release of the captured soldiers and police officers.
“The state will firmly confront anything that might endanger the lives of our sons and be alert for attempts to transform the battle between citizen and the state at a time when efforts need to be unified.”
During a brief talk with reporters, Joreige said the Army and security forces were responsible for launching any military operation, and that the government has given security agencies the political cover.
While the radical groups have demanded the release of Islamist detainees in Roumieh Prison, some of whom have been held since 2007, the government and the judiciary decided earlier this week to speed up the trials of the prisoners.
But Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who chaired the morning Cabinet session, has opposed any negotiations between the government and Islamists holding the troops that would require a prisoner exchange.
Joreige said that the Cabinet also affirmed its support for the Lebanese Army and security forces in Arsal, and “asked their leaderships to take all necessary measures to bring the situation in Arsal under control and free the captured soldiers.”
During the session, Salam informed his ministers that he has held secret contacts with countries that could help secure the release of the troops, according to the information minister.
The 24-member Cabinet also agreed to continue needed contacts with countries that could have some leverage to release the soldiers, asking media outlets to report accurately on the case.
“The Cabinet asked media outlets to commit to accuracy and national interest when reporting news on the soldiers and their families, and keep release efforts distant from political bickering ... to preserve civil peace and prevent the media from turning into a useful tool for the takfiri kidnappers,” Joreige said, reading from a statement.
Joreige was also tasked with taking judicial action in case media outlets violated this request.
The Cabinet also tasked the crisis committee, which was created to follow up on the hostage crisis, with implementing the Cabinet's decision.
Before entering the Cabinet session around 11 a.m., Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi said he was among many who called on the government to speed up the trials of some 94 detainees. The men were arrested during and after the 2007 clashes between the Lebanese Army and Islamist gunmen in north Lebanon.
Telecoms Minister Boutros Harb said the captured troops were “our children and we should free them and preserve the prestige of the state at the same time.”
Although reports emerged that Qatar and Turkey were also mediating the release of the soldiers, an expected visit by Salam to Doha has not yet been scheduled. Ministerial sources said such a trip would require a Cabinet decision that would also include a mechanism to secure the release of the troops as soon as possible to prevent the killing of another Lebanese soldier.
“All the captured soldiers are safe, and were are trying to release all of them without exceptions,” local mediator Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri told The Daily Star Thursday.
Hujeiri confirmed that the Nusra Front was requesting the release of at least 10 Islamist prisoners in return for each of the military hostages.
“This condition can be amended and changed during negotiations,” he said.
The mediator said the “government has adopted the principle of negotiation with the militant captors,” expressing his belief that negotiations would yield a positive outcome.
Hujeiri denied rumors of a failed attempt to free kidnapped policeman Abbas Msheik after news outlets reports late Wednesday.
It was reported that Msheik’s health condition prompted mediators to attempt to secure his release, however their request was turned down by Nusra commanders, who insisted on a trade of detained Islamists militants in return for his freedom.
“There was no mediation to secure his [Msheik’s] release,” Hujeiri said, stressing that negotiators were trying to free all military captives and no just one person.
Earlier this week, ISIS handed over the body of 1st Sgt. Ali al-Sayyed who militants beheaded to pressure the government to negotiate. An ISIS-affiliated man, who posted a picture of Sayyed’s beheading, posting a comment on social media Wednesday, saying the group was sharpening their knife with the caption: “Are you going to negotiate or not?”
At least 23 soldiers and policemen are still being held by the Nusra Front and ISIS, which captured the men during the Arsal clashes between the Army and militants from Syria who tried to seize the border town.
Meanwhile, the families of the captives blocked the road to Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown Beirut to pressure the Cabinet.
Thursday's protest was the first by the families of the kidnapped soldiers in Beirut. They have blocked roads in east and north Lebanon to demand the speedy release of the captive soldiers and policemen from the Internal Security Forces.