Lebanon: Islamist militants threaten to reinvade Ersal unless conditions are met

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Lebanese army soldiers drive armoured personnel carriers in the northern Lebanese town of Arsal on the border with Syria on August 6, 2014, as fighting with Islamist jihadists continue. (Photo: AFP-STR)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Thursday, August 7, 2014

Some of the Islamist militants occupying Ersal have withdrawn “conditionally,” pursuant to a deal brokered by the Muslim Scholars Association. The militants’ demands included for the army not to retaliate against people in Ersal or Syrian refugees after the militants withdraw. The militants have declared that any raids or arrests by the military would be deemed to be in violation of the truce, and threatened to reinvade Ersal if this happens.

Despite a large number of the Islamic militants agreeing to withdraw from Ersal to the nearby mountains, the threat of re-invasion of the town still stands. The militants have pulled out into an area less than two kilometers from the Lebanese-Syrian border. They returned to their fortifications in the mountains where they will “monitor whether the conditional ceasefire is going to be respected or not.”

Their conditions included a ceasefire by the Lebanese army, allowing aid in, and refraining from arresting Lebanese and Syrian suspects, conditions that the Muslim Scholars Association pledged to guarantee as part of the deal.

In regards to the captive soldiers and Internal Security Forces officers, who are being held by three different militant factions, a deal was reached to release them after the militants withdraw to the mountains. Sources from the militants’ side indicated that breaching the agreement would certainly lead to the re-invasion of Ersal, and said, “Next time, we will attack army positions using car bombs.”

For their part, Lebanese army sources said that their biggest concern now was freeing the hostages. The sources said that the truce would remain fragile as long as the militants are stationed along the border. Concerning the arrest of wanted fugitives in Ersal, the sources said, “The army intends to arrest anyone involved in shedding the blood of its martyrs, and will not compromise on this matter.”

On Wednesday, al-Nusra Front fighters were the first to withdraw from Ersal. Their “emir” Abu Malik al-Shami came personally to Ersal to handle negotiations with other armed groups to convince them to return to the mountains where they had been holed up prior to the attack. Over the past days, the militants of the Islamic State (IS) were refusing to withdraw.

IS militants, along with their comrades in the Fajr al-Islam Brigade, have demanded that the army release Abu Ahmed Jumaa, a leader in the latter organization who had been arrested by the army near Ersal on Saturday. But the militants soon realized that this was an impossible demand.

In this regard, al-Nusra Front reportedly sees the occupation of Ersal as a foolish move that would invite a crack down on the militants and cut the only lifeline they have left, whether in terms of their movements or supply lines. According to al-Nusra sources, Sheikh Abu Malek al-Talli and Sheikh Mustafa Houjeiri have been calling on IS militants to withdraw to stop the bloodshed and allow people who have been displaced because of the fighting to return.

However, IS militants have a different point of view. Despite their conviction that their main demand is impossible, they still did not want to withdraw. Their commander Abu al-Hassan al-Filastini died of his wounds, while his deputy Abu Ahmed Jumaa remains in the army’s custody.

IS militants are holding six Lebanese army soldiers as hostages, and control a Lebanese town in its entirety, and for all intents and purposes, they also have thousands of Lebanese and Syrian civilians under their stranglehold as an insurance policy against any attempt by the army to storm or bomb the town to destroy them.

Concerning food supplies, a militant who recently pledged allegiance to the IS said, “Sooner or later, the relief organizations will bring in food aid for the civilians during a truce, which we will then share with them.”

These militants’ refusal to leave the town is also underpinned by the approach of the cold season, which would make their movement in the mountains nearly impossible. Regarding this particular point, an IS militant told Al-Akhbar, “Returning to the mountains in these circumstances would tighten the siege against us.”

The militant in question continued, “One of the proposals was to open a safe corridor for the withdrawal of IS soldiers into Aleppo or Raqqa.” When queried further about this, the militant said that Hezbollah would be able to make it happen, “as it happened when it mediated with the Syrian regime to open safe corridors for our exit from Qusayr.”

Another militant goes further. He said that during discussions within his group, some suggested demanding the army to pledge not to further reinforce its positions in the mountains. In other words, this faction wants things to go back the way they were before the attack on Ersal, in terms of their freedom of movement.

On Wednesday, the militants waited for the Muslim Scholars delegation to declare what they had agreed to at the press conference held in the town of Ras Baalbek, following the release of three captive soldiers, before they announced the start of their withdrawal.

Although sources from the militants’ side told Al-Akhbar they would complete their withdrawal before sunset today, Thursday, a leader in the armed opposition said that the withdrawal of all militants would be completed within two hours after the ceasefire comes into force. However, the ceasefire collapsed, and violent clashes broke out on all fronts in the vicinity of Ersal.

Regarding the remainder of the army’s prisoners, the militants promised to release them from the mountains.

Efforts led by Muslim Scholars Association have thus produced a conditional withdrawal by the militants, requiring the army not to pursue people from Ersal or Syrians after they pull out.

In the meantime, jihadi websites broke the news of the death of the IS emir in Qalamoun, Abu al-Hassan al-Filastini, who died of wounds he had sustained on the first day of the battles in Ersal. According to press reports, Abu Hassan al-Filastini is the same person as Ahmed Taha, the man responsible for staging rocket attacks on Beirut’s southern suburbs. However, these reports are inaccurate. Taha was born in 1983, while Abu Hassan is in his 40s, bearing in mind that both men had pledged allegiance to IS in recent months.

It is also worth noting that notables from Ersal have now established a committee to “impose order in the Syrian refugee camps.”

Follow Radwan Mortada on Twitter | @radwanmortada

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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