Lebanon News

Released captive was held with hostages near border

A general view of the town of Arsal (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BEIRUT: ISIS is holding at least eight captive Lebanese soldiers in a small farmhouse one hour outside of Arsal, according to Maher al-Ammatouri, the stone worker who was kidnapped and released this week.

Ammatouri said that the soldiers were being held alongside more than 50 other hostages in the cabin, and that some had been badly beaten.

“The Sunni and Christian soldiers are in low spirits, but they are OK physically,” Ammatouri told The Daily Star. “But the soldiers that they [ISIS] know are Shiites have bad injuries.”

At 11:30 Wednesday morning, a group of armed militants descended upon the quarry near the northeastern town of Arsal where Ammatouri was working with a group of men.

Ammatouri, who is 36 and hails from the Druze Chouf town of Barouk, said the militants had singled him out and shuffled him into a waiting car.

His attackers, who had both Lebanese and Syrian accents, identified themselves. “They told me they were from ISIS.”

After an hour of driving through the rocky badlands surrounding Arsal, Ammatouri said they had reached a lone farmhouse “right near the Syrian border.”

The house, Ammatouri said, had no running water or toilets. Inside, he saw at least eight Lebanese soldiers and between 50 and 60 other individuals. At least 10 guards monitored the hostages at all times.

“I wasn’t really allowed to speak to the people because we were always monitored,” he said. He saw no heavy weaponry at the farmhouse but said the captors had guns.

Still, he was able to speak to captive soldiers Ali Hajj Hasan and Saif Zebien. “They said again and again, please try to tell our families that although we are doing OK at the moment, we need them to do whatever they can to save us.”

The Shiite soldiers, he said had been beaten “with electric cables, with bamboo sticks and with electricity tools,” and had visible injuries to their arms and legs.

The other soldiers, however, appeared to be in decent health. All of the hostages sleep on thin foam mattresses, Ammatouri added.

He received two meals, both bulgur wheat, in the thirty-odd hours he was held.

Ammatouri said he was treated civilly by the ISIS members. “They didn’t beat me,” he said, but added that they had taken, and still retained, his mobile phone. The ISIS members told Ammatouri they had kidnapped him because they wanted information about “who was entering and leaving Arsal.”Members of the terrorist group insisted that a prisoner swap was the primary condition of the soldiers’ release. “They told me there is no other solution other than releasing their men from Roumieh Prison.”

ISIS has already executed two Lebanese soldiers it captured during clashes with the Army in Arsal in early August.

Another Islamist group, the Nusra Front, is holding several security personnel it also kidnapped during the Arsal battles. Between them, the two groups have at least 21 captive servicemen.

While negotiations for the release of the captured servicemen have been slow and wrought with political sensitivities, Ammatouri’s family moved swiftly to secure his release.

“The workmen at the quarry called us 10 minutes after he was captured,” said Ammatouri’s brother Bassel.

“We went immediately to Arsal, where the Arsalis were very helpful.”

Ammatouri said he was sure that at least one or two of the ISIS members who kidnapped him had contacts in Arsal.

In close conjunction with MP Walid Jumblatt, the Ammatouri family successfully lobbied for their son’s release.

He was freed around 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the day after he was kidnapped.

Ammatouri said his family had not paid any ransom to the kidnappers but did not know if a sum had been offered by Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party.

The Druze leader had canceled all his appointments Wednesday, apparently clearing his schedule to deal with Ammatouri’s case.

“Walid Jumblatt took care of the whole thing,” he said.

Back in his Chouf village on the eve of Eid al-Adha, Ammatouri’s family and friends could be heard cheering in the background during his brief telephone call with The Daily Star.

“May God protect those [hostages] who are still with ISIS. I hope everyone will be released soon,” said Ammatouri breathlessly, taking a momentary break from receiving well-wishers.

“The whole country needs to be united and all the sects need to become one in order for the soldiers to be released.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 04, 2014, on page 1.

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