HERMEL, Lebanon: The Qatari delegation has finished its first meeting with Nusra Front commanders and was preparing to bring their demands to the Lebanese government Friday.
Qatar has stepped in to help secure the release of nearly two dozen Lebanese soldiers and policemen held captive by jihadists, dispatching a delegation overnight to the northeastern town of Arsal to negotiate their freedom.
The move came as Prime Minister Tammam Salam said Thursday that he opposed any negotiations between the government and the kidnappers that would require a prisoner exchange.
“The Qatari delegation has stepped in to negotiations,” said local mediator Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri, “they are now the new mediators.”
According to Hujeiri, the Qatari delegation has finished its first meeting with Nusra Front militants after visiting the outskirts of Arsal earlier Friday.
“During the meeting, the new mediators heard the militant’s demands,” he said, adding that the Qatari delegation was set to deliver the militants' requests to the Lebanese government.
“This is the first visit,” he added, implying more meetings would take place in the near future.
When asked about the success of the meeting, Hujeiri said that “the militant’s principle demands haven't changed despite the fact that new mediators have joined negotiations.”
The local mediator said that if the Lebanese government would not negotiate, then there was nothing the new mediators could do.
The delegation did not include security or military officials, said Hujeiri, clarifying that the mediators “are most likely civilians.”
However a security source for The Daily Star said that the Qatari delegation was accompanied by a member of Lebanese General Security as well as a Syrian citizen.
The Qatari delegation was also set to negotiate with ISIS militants Friday, said Hujeiri, however the meeting did not happen.
“They were not able to meet with ISIS mediators,” he said.
In a statement released Friday, ISIS in Qalamoun accused the Qatari delegation of obstructing negotiations by refusing to meet with mediators from the group.
The new mediators, according to ISIS, “are now directly responsible for obstructing negotiation and are [also responsible] for the blood of the soldiers,” the group said in a statement on Twitter.
“Serious negotiations have been launched,” said Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi before entering a meeting for the emergency ministerial committee in the Grand Serail.
"Prime Minister Tammam Salam was personally contacting the Qatari negotiator" he said.
“It appears that the situation is going in a positive direction."
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said that the committee has rejected any trade-off, adding that “negotiations are restricted to states.”
The ministerial committee that is tasked with following up on the hostage crisis was set to meet with the families of the captive soldiers in the Grand Serail Friday, however the family members boycotted the session in protest of the government’s stance over negotiations.
Following the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Samir Moqbel said that the importance of the issue and its sensitivity urges a unified and clear position that won’t allow for any confusion or internal strife.
“There is no trade-off, but there is an attempt to discuss the issue with states and not with individuals” he said.
Quoting Prime Minister Tammam Salam, Moqbel said that the hostage crisis was a priority that gains primacy over other concerns.
The Cabinet stressed during its Thursday meeting that it would not conduct any negotiations with the hostage-takers and rejected any swap deal. It also gave the Lebanese Army a free hand to launch a military operation to free the captured soldiers.
A senior security source told The Daily Star that some of the hostages were still inside Arsal, raising the prospect of a military operation to free them.
Jihadists holding at least 23 servicemen captive have demanded the release of Islamist inmates held in Roumieh Prison in exchange for the hostages.
During Thursday's Cabinet session, Salam told the ministers that he had held secret contacts with countries that could help secure the release of the troops.
The Cabinet also agreed to continue needed contacts with countries that could have some leverage to release the soldiers.
In remarks to As-Safir newspaper, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said the hostages’ crisis would be the focal point of discussions during his visit to Doha in the company of General Security head, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim.
“We will exert every effort with the countries that could have a positive influence on the kidnappers,” he said.