TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The bodies of four fighters killed during a Syrian army ambush in the Syrian town of Tal Kalakh were delivered to their relatives in Tripoli Sunday. The bodies entered Lebanon via the northern border crossing of Arida.
The bodies were identified as Lebanese nationals Ahmad Nabhan, Bilal al-Ghoul, Mohammad Abdel-Rahman Khalil, known as al-Ayoubi, and Palestinian Mohammad al-Hajj.
Nabhan and Ayoubi hailed from Tripoli and Ghoul from the northern town of Dinnieh, while Hajj was a resident of the Beddawi refugee camp. All four were buried in the afternoon.
A statement from General Security issued at noon said that its chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim would maintain his contacts with Syrian authorities, in coordination with Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry, to secure the repatriation of the remaining bodies.
Tight security measures were taken in Tripoli in the morning, with the Army deploying heavily in Nour Square, the main entrance to the city’s neighborhoods.
Four ambulances provided by Dar al-Fatwa crossed the Arida northern border into Syria to take the bodies and hand them over to Lebanese authorities. A delegation of sheikhs from Dar al-Fatwa was the first to arrive to the crossing, headed by the secretary of the organization, Mohammad Imam.
“We came here to receive and accompany the bodies of the martyrs. We hope the rest of the bodies are repatriated as soon as possible,” Imam said.
The Internal Security Forces, General Security and the Army all deployed to the border crossing.
Security sources told The Daily Star that the arrival of Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir to Arida delayed for an hour the handover of the bodies, which was scheduled at 9 a.m.
One of Assir’s supporters told reporters that they came “to receive the bodies of the jihad martyrs who were killed by the Syria’s criminal regime.”
Syrian authorities objected to the presence of Assir, who arrived with several companions, and urged Dar al-Fatwa representatives to ask him to leave.
Other sheikhs were able to convince Assir to leave Arida and wait for the bodies inside Tripoli, the sources said.
The convey traveling from the border first stopped in Beddawi, where relatives of Hajj took his body into the camp.
The three other bodies were washed and covered in burial shrouds at a mosque in Tripoli, where some armed supporters of the slain Salafists gathered briefly before they were warned that the Army would crack down on anyone carrying weapons.
Prayers were held for Nabhan and Ayoubi at the Grand Mansouri Mosque.
Former MP Misbah Ahdab attended.
After they left the border area, Assir and his companions did not travel to the mosque, instead having lunch at a well-known sweet shop in the city. No March 14 officials were in attendance either.
There was brief confusion at the residence of Ayoubi’s relatives where his father said he was unable to recognize the slain fighter.
His mother and other family members examined the body more closely at the mosque, however, and determined it was indeed Ayoubi.
The four bodies were the second round to be taken back into Lebanon. When the first round of three bodies was transferred last week, one of them had been misidentified and was given to the wrong family.
Syrian authorities handed over the corpses of three fighters via the northern border crossing.
The men whose bodies were repatriated then were identified as Mohammad al-Mir, Khodr Mustafa Alameddine and Abdel-Hamid Ali al-Agha.
On Friday, the families of the slain fighters warned they would stage rallies across Lebanon starting Monday if the authorities failed to retrieve the bodies of the fighters over the weekend. They also demanded the expulsion of Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel-Karim Ali.
The families, who described the ambassador as a “criminal,” called on the authorities to expel him until the rest of the bodies are repatriated.
But Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim, who represents the relatives of the fighters killed, told The Daily Star that after the families were told Sunday that they would receive three additional bodies within the next two days, they backed down on their threat.
Those expected to be returned to Lebanon are Abdel-Hakim Ibrahim, Hussein Sroor and Malek Dib.
A security source taking part in negotiations with Syrian authorities over the bodies said the number of fighters killed in the ambush remains unclear, and it will take some time to identify the remaining bodies.
“The mystery lies in who masterminded this operation. He’s still completely unknown and this makes our mission very difficult, particularly as many Salafists leave Lebanon to fight in Syria and then nothing is known of their whereabouts,” he said. “Maybe they die in Syria with no ID papers.”
“The security bodies and the Syrian bodies don’t have information on this,” he said, adding that Syrian authorities told Lebanese officials that they had arrested some of the men from the same group of fighters.