BEIRUT: Islamist militants promised not to harm the nearly two dozen Lebanese servicemen they captured in August in the border town of Arsal, the mufti of Baalbek-Hermel said Wednesday. Speaking to The Daily Star, Sheikh Bakr Rifai said that ISIS and the Nusra Front made a commitment two days ago to a delegation of scholars from the Syrian region of Qalamoun who live in the northeastern town of Arsal.
“The delegation, which also included scholars from Arsal, met both groups who vowed not to harm the captives throughout the negotiation process,” Rifai explained.
A Qatari envoy is negotiating for the release of at least 21 Army soldiers and policemen abducted by ISIS and the Nusra Front during battles with the Army in Arsal in August.
After holding talks with the envoy Tuesday, the captors released 1st. Adj. Kamal Mohammad Hujairi, who was snatched by the Nusra Front in Arsal in a separate incident last month.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement Wednesday that a patrol from Military Intelligence defused 66 kilograms of chemical materials used for bombings it discovered in three bags along with a detonator in the area of Ain al-Shaab in Arsal.
Quoting General Security sources, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said that the security body’s head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim had received a written commitment delivered by the Islamist militants to keep the servicemen safe.
ISIS has slaughtered two of its soldiers so far, while the Nusra Front shot dead one late last month.
The Lebanese government has said it would only resume indirect negotiations with the captors when the killing of security personnel stops.
Earlier Wednesday, Rifai attended a gathering of scholars in Arsal, where he called on families of the kidnapped servicemen to end road closures in light of the promise made by the captors and due to the progress achieved in the negotiation.
He also urged the Army to refrain from raiding Syrian refugee camps.
Families of the soldiers and policemen continued to block roads Wednesday in a bid to pressure the government to negotiate the release of the hostages.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam said the case of the hostages should not be politicized, emphasizing that the negotiations required secrecy. “The nature of negotiations requires secrecy in order to reach solutions that would lead to the soldiers being released,” Salam said after attending a Parliament session.
“This issue should not be politicized and it requires a high level of alertness and national awareness,” he added.
Separately, gunmen abducted Maher al-Ammatouri near Arsal while he was picking up an order of stones from a quarry in the area, security sources told The Daily Star.
The victim, in his 30s, hails from the Mount Lebanon village of Barouk. An official from Barouk’s municipality said the kidnapping could be motivated by ransom.
News of the abduction triggered an uproar in the village where residents gathered in the main square, many threatening to kidnap Arsal residents to trade them for Ammatouri.