Nusra Front releases one Lebanese soldier after talks
At least 21 Lebanese soldiers and policemen are still being held hostage by militants. (AFP/File)
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Nusra Front militants handed over Tuesday night a Lebanese soldier they abducted last month to an envoy of Qatar negotiating the release of nearly two dozen servicemen captured in August in the frontier town of Arsal.
The release of First Adjutant Kamal Mohammad Hujeiri, who was snatched from Arsal in September, came after the envoy conducted six hours of negotiations with militants from the Nusra Front and ISIS.
Reports that another soldier was also freed could not be confirmed.
Earlier, General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim left the country as part of efforts to win the freedom of the hostages, a security source said. The source did not identify Ibrahim's destination.
At least 21 Lebanese soldiers and policemen are still held hostage after 30 were captured by the Islamist militants during clashes with the Army in Arsal on Aug. 2.
The envoy returned to Beirut later in the evening, having arrived in Arsal earlier in the day with the aim of holding talks with the militants positioned on the town’s outskirts.
The Lebanese Army and members of the General Security accompanied the envoy to Arsal, a security source said, but went no further than the town.
In exchange for releasing all the captives, the Nusra Front is demanding a humanitarian corridor for militants in Arsal, the release of those detained in connection to the Arsal clashes and that Syrian refugees be protected from reprisal attacks.
ISIS, on the other hand is demanding the release of Islamist prisoners detained in Roumieh prison.
Late last month, Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk clarified that the Cabinet supported holding talks with militants to free the captured servicemen and that Qatari and Turkish officials, as well as Lebanese mediators, were involved in the process.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam said it was up to Qatar to negotiate a deal on behalf of Lebanon to free the troops and policemen, while Machnouk said he supported a swap deal to end the crisis.
“The Lebanese government released 27 Syrian refugees as a goodwill gesture,” a Syrian source in direct contact with the militants told The Daily Star. The Syrian in question were detained over the past week during wide raids on refugee sites in Arsal. According to the source, the move indicates to the militants that the government was being more serious about its intention to engage in talks.“The militants have the same demands, the only thing that’s changed is the government’s approach,” the source said.
“The negotiations have just become serious.”
Last month, the Nusra Front executed a hostage, Army soldier Mohammad Maarouf Hammieh, and threatened to kill another, policeman Ali Bazal, citing the government’s complacency toward negotiations.
Meanwhile, families of the hostages kept the Dahr al-Baidar road linking Mount Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley closed Tuesday in a bid to pressure the government to negotiate the release of their loved ones. They also briefly blocked the road leading to the Masnaa border crossing with Syria before it was reopened by security forces. – Additional reporting by Elise Knutsen and Wassim Mroueh
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