Lebanon: Army kidnappers make their demands

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Lebanese troops stand guard in a street on August 9, 2014 in the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal, on the border with Syria, a day after the Lebanese army began deploying into the town, after a group of Sunni clerics negotiated a truce that saw jihadists withdraw after days of clashes. (Photo: AFP-STR)

By: Amal Khalil

Published Wednesday, August 13, 2014

During the clashes in Ersal, sounds of cheers and praise bellowed from the building holding Islamist detainees in Roumieh’s central prison as soon as the abduction of several soldiers from the Lebanese army and the Internal Security Forces (ISF) was announced. As the crisis in Syria intensified, the Islamist detainees in the crowded cells hoped "they would be freed in an exchange for prisoners or by force at the hands of their brothers, who were demanding their release in their recorded messages and statements."

Although the kidnappers did not directly declare their conditions for the release of the detainees, those dreams are getting closer to becoming a reality, after the soldiers "fell into the grip of our brothers." Islamist sources inside Roumieh Block B described to Al-Akhbar the optimistic and joyous atmosphere among the extremist detainees and members of Fatah al-Islam. They are convinced the [Islamic] State will "agree on exchanging its detainees with prisoners from Roumieh and other places."

However, a member of the negotiating committee from the Muslim Scholars Association Sheikh Adnan Amama maintained in a phone conversation with Al-Akhbar that the kidnappers "did not demand the exchange of their detainees with Roumieh prisoners or any others; they did not provide lists of detainees or suspects." He described the aspirations of Islamists in Roumieh as "mere conjecture and wishes that this will happen," and indicated that "the Association does not have contacts with any of the detainees."

So what are the kidnappers' priorities? Amama explained that the negotiating team headed by Sheikh Samih Ezzeddine took a list of demands to the Grand Serail and delivered them to Prime Minister Tammam Salam, in the presence of the head of the Higher Relief Commission (HRC) Major General Mohammed Kheir and several other members. They were informed that the kidnappers "did not wish to kill or harm the detainees and did not want to keep them either" and the soldiers were "in good condition."

"They are ready to release them, but are hoping for a goodwill gesture from the [Lebanese] state and army," Amama told the attendees. A gesture characterized by "staying away from the almost 50,000 Syrian refugees living in camps in and around Ersal." Amama explained they were fearful the refugees "will be subject to a disastrous reaction and vengeance from the security forces." However, he believed that revenge "could be undertaken by some Ersal residents, who are beginning to complain about the Syrian presence in their town."

To confront this, Amama announced that the Muslim Scholars Association agreed with the prime minister to form a committee, which includes Ersal figures, "to reduce the tensions between the people of Ersal and the refugees." The Association called on Salam to improve the conditions of the camps and ask international organizations to increase their services.

Another goodwill gesture the kidnappers are hoping for is "to improve the treatment of the wounded who were captured by the army on the battlefield and transfer them to al-Amal Hospital." According to Amama, the kidnappers maintain the detainees are "displaced civilians who did not participate in the fighting." He said they were being tied up to their beds during treatment and announced that "two of them died the day before yesterday [Monday]."

According to the kidnappers, the above reasons are hindering the negotiations. This led them to reject "announcing a list of names of the hostages, to differentiate them from the missing, or taking a video to reassure their families of their situation," according to Amama.

Amama also explained that the kidnappers "belong to three factions, al-Nusra Front, ISIS, and another group, which might be part of the Front. But they are two sides and each has its conditions." He was worried "the soldiers’ situation will become like that of Azaz [when the Lebanese Shia pilgrims were kidnapped and held in Azaz by Syrian fighters for a year and a half]. But the committee is pushing to end the issue immediately. If we do not reach a result, it will quickly announce that it is incapable of continuing with the negotiations."

During a meeting with a delegation from the families of missing soldiers, army chief General Jean Kahwaji asserted that "their cause is the primary concern for the army in this phase. The Command has used all necessary means for their prompt release and will continue to do so without delay."

The army "will never compromise over the blood of its martyrs and wounded or the freedom of its missing soldiers," Kahwaji maintained. "It is ready for all developments to maintain the safety of missing soldiers and their release and return to their institution and families."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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