Qatar steps in to free Lebanese soldiers from IS, Nusra Front
Relatives of the kidnapped soldiers protest for their release (File/AFP)
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A Qatari delegation Friday stepped in to help secure the release of Lebanese soldiers and policemen held hostage by militants, meeting with commanders from ISIS and the Nusra Front to convey their demands to the government.
The Qatari mediation came a day after the government rejected the militants’ demands to swap the hostages with Islamist detainees held in Roumieh prison.
Qatar dispatched a delegation overnight to the northeastern town of Arsal. The delegation drove Friday morning to the outskirts of Arsal, where they met with Nusra Front commanders, according to local mediator Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri.
ISIS later Friday issued a statement, saying the group had met with the Qatari delegation and handed them their demands for releasing the hostages.
“We met today with the Qatari mediator. It appeared to us that the negotiations are being obstructed by other parties,” ISIS in the Qalamoun district said in a statement on Twitter. “It was agreed to adopt the Qatari mediator as the only channel of the negotiation process. The Qatari mediator was handed a copy of the Islamic State’s demands,” it added.
Speaking to The Daily Star by phone, Hujeiri said: “The Qatari delegation has finished its first meeting with Nusra Front commanders and was preparing to deliver their demands to the Lebanese government later Friday. During the meeting, the new mediators heard the militants’ demands.”
If the Lebanese government refuses to negotiate [with the militants], then there is nothing the new mediators can do, Hujeiri said.
According to Hujeiri, the Qatari delegation did not include security or military officials. He said that the militants’ demands have not changed.
But a security source told The Daily Star that the delegation included a member of Lebanese General Security and a Syrian citizen.
“Serious negotiations have been launched,” Justice Minister Ashraf Rifisaid before entering a meeting of a ministerial committee tasked with following up the hostage crisis. “Prime Minister Tammam Salam is personally contacting the Qatari mediator ... It appears that the situation is going in a positive direction.”
Salam said Thursday he opposed any direct negotiations between the government and the militants that would require a prisoner exchange. The Cabinet Thursday gave the Lebanese Army a free hand to launch a military operation to free the captured soldiers.
Salam Friday chaired a meeting of the committee, which includes the ministers of defense, interior, justice, finance and foreign affairs. The committee was set to meet with the families of the captive soldiers. But the families did not show up for the meeting in protest at the government’s refusal to negotiate with the militants.
ISIS and Nusra, holding at least 23 soldiers and policemen, have demanded the release of Islamist inmates in Roumieh prison in exchange for the hostages.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Samir Moqbel reiterated the government’s stance on negotiations, saying Qatar was helping in the hostage crisis.
“There is no trade-off in the issue of the kidnapped soldiers, but an attempt to discuss a solution for this case with states and not with individuals” he said.
Salam said during the committee’s meeting that the hostage crisis was the government’s priority and took precedence over other concerns.
The Nusra Front Friday released a video of the nine policemen and soldiers they are holding captive, warning that Sunnis, Shiites and the rest of Lebanon’s sects would pay the price for Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria.
The 27-minute video posted on a YouTube channel that usually carries the radical group’s videos began by showing footage of Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah speaking about his party’s role in Syria.
The title of the video – “Who will pay the price?” – is seemingly answered by the graphic footage of dead and bloodied children and women, allegedly killed by Hezbollah fighters.
“They [ Hezbollah fighters] killed innocent people in Arsal camps. They asked the Army for a cease-fire but rockets were fired from Labweh,” a man dressed in the Internal Security Forces uniform said as he sat in front of the Nusra flag. “They pushed the Lebanese Army to the forefront of the battle [in Arsal], the Army lost 50 people and 50 others were kidnapped.”
Nusra issued a warning to Sunnis, urging them to join its ranks and stand against the Lebanese army, which it has accused of working with Hezbollah.
By Hashem Osseiran, Hasan Lakkis
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