Lebanon News

Families lament lack of drive to secure release of servicemen

Relatives of the kidnapped soldiers protest near the Grand Serail in Beirut, Sunday, July 31, 2016. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

BEIRUT: The families of nine Lebanese soldiers protested in Downtown Beirut Sunday, nearly two years after their loved ones were kidnapped by Daesh (ISIS) in the northeast border town of Arsal.

“[We] need to take to the streets again to remind [everyone] of our case,” Hussein Youssef, father of one of the hostages, told LBCI from Riad al-Solh Square.

Although 16 servicemen were freed last year, those still in captivity haven’t received the same degree of attention as before the release.

“Why is the crisis committee not meeting? Has the crisis ended?” asked Nizam Mgheit, whose brother is one of the kidnapped. “Hearing [reports] that the soldiers have died is easier than hearing about constant threats to [their lives].”

Mgheit warned that families would intensify their protests by cutting off roads unless the government stepped up its efforts immediately.

He also feared the work of lawyer Nabil Halabi was being hindered. Halabi was instrumental in negotiating the release of 16 servicemen by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front.

“We know [Halabi] is able to get results so what are reasons he’s stopped working [on these cases]?” Mgheit added.

“Our wounds will not heal before the soldiers return alive.”

Halabi told The Daily Star that he remained involved in negotiations to release the servicemen, and that while talks were on hold for now, they would resume next month.

“There were negotiations in March, but then they stopped when we announced them,” explained Halabi, who is also the director of the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.

Around 37 soldiers and policemen were kidnapped in Arsal by Daesh and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham militants on Aug. 7, 2014. Extremists had stormed the border town five days earlier following the Lebanese Army’s arrest of a prominent Syrian rebel commander.

After days of clashes, the Army managed to drive the militants out. Most hostages were released over a period of 16 months, while four were executed – two by Daesh and two by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

During this period, negotiations were taking place to free the soldiers and policemen, with many mediators involved to ensure their success.

It wasn’t until Dec. 1, 2015, that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham released 16 Internal Security Forces personnel and Army soldiers in a prisoner exchange. The operation took place somewhere on Arsal’s outskirts.

Just over two months ago, the father of a soldier who was beheaded by Daesh in September 2014, admitted to killing the nephew of controversial Arsal sheikh and fugitive Mustafa Hujeiri.

The body was found on top of the grave of soldier Mohammad Hamieh in the town of Taraya, in the eastern district of Baalbek.

Maarouf Hamieh, the soldier’s father, indicated he carried out the murder as an act of revenge during an interview with a local network.

The families of the servicemen have accused Hujeiri of handing over their sons to the militants on the night they were kidnapped. Hujeiri was seen with militants on the day the prisoner swap took place in December.

He has denied any involvement.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 01, 2016, on page 2.




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