BEIRUT: Families of Lebanese soldiers and policemen kidnapped by militants threatened Tuesday to escalate protests in a manner that would “surprise the government and people,” blasting the Cabinet for neglecting their case.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tammam Salam said that several options to end the hostage crisis, including force, were on the table.
“I decided, in coordination with the families of the other kidnapped, to take action and escalate on a level that will surprise everybody, including the government and people,” said Rana Fliti, the wife of captured policemen Ali Bazal.
Speaking during a news conference at her house in the Bekaa Valley village of Bazalieh, Fliti said that escalation would come due to government negligence and because she discovered that demands made by the Nusra Front, which is holding a number of the captives including her husband, were not hard to meet.
Fliti met with three Nusra Front members Monday on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal, and received their demands.
She said the group was demanding the opening of a humanitarian corridor to Arsal, ending what they describe as attacks against Syrian refugees and Sunnis in Lebanon and the release of all those arrested by the Lebanese Army in the aftermath of ISIS and the Nusra Front’s brief takeover of Arsal last month.
“We are fed up with begging politicians who don’t care about the lives of the captives. We hold them responsible for the bloodshed, and I threaten the sons of every politician, as their blood is not more valuable than the blood of the soldiers,” Fliti said.
Militants from the Nusra Front and ISIS, stationed on the outskirts of Arsal, are still holding at least 21 policemen and soldiers captured during the battle. ISIS has beheaded two soldiers so far, while the Nusra Front shot dead one soldier last week.
Addressing Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Fliti said: “Given that you are in control of everything, stop the bloodshed and open the way for negotiations because we are running out of time, as all soldiers will be killed within 48 hours, one after the other,” Fliti said.
She said that solving the crisis was in the hands of Salam. “You say that you will not negotiate under pressure and threats by the Nusra Front, I tell you that you have to negotiate under all sorts of pressure if you are a capable prime minister.”
For its part, the family of kidnapped soldier Ibrahim Moghit blocked the Qalamoun highway in north Lebanon for three hours.
The families stepped up their protests to pressure the government into meeting the demands of the captives Monday, blocking the vital Dahr al-Baidar road in the Bekaa Valley.
The government refuses to swap the captured servicemen with Islamist inmates in Roumieh prison, a key demand of some of the captors.
Salam did not rule out the possibility of using force to end the crisis, but also stressed that negotiations were still an option on the table.
“We have numerous options such as military confrontation, but at the same time, negotiation is one of these options,” Salam told Al-Arabiya TV.
The Army has cut off most supply routes to the outskirts of Arsal and often pounds positions of ISIS and the Nusra Front there.
Salam, currently in New York to take part in the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly, stressed that Lebanon would not be blackmailed by the captors of the soldiers.
“Targeting the Lebanese soldiers only increases our insistence on confrontation,” he said. “We do not have a magic formula, but we will use all means to free the soldiers.”
Salam said that the government had stressed that a starting point with indirect negotiations with militants should be that they stop killing policemen and soldiers.
He added that he would discuss the hostage crisis with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
Authorities decided after a security meeting chaired by Defense Minister Samir Moqbel Tuesday to take a number of measures across the country to preserve stability.
“We discussed the security situation in the country in general, particularly in the Bekaa Valley, Arsal, Tripoli and the issue of Roumieh prison,” Moqbel said after the meeting, which was attended by top security officials and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk. “A series of measures were taken to enhance security in the country.” Machnouk met Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz. The minister had said that he would seek the help of Turkey to resolve the hostage crisis.
A rocket reportedly crashed into the location where security personnel captured by Nusra Front militants were being held, the group claimed on an affiliated Twitter page. It also attached a picture of the alleged rocket. A source acquainted with the militants confirmed the rocket attack and highlighted that none of the hostages were killed.
The militants, however, were wounded as a result of the rocket, the source told The Daily Star. According to the source, “Syrian warplanes targeted the area where the Nusra Front is keeping its captives.”
The Future bloc of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri reiterated unconditional support to the government as it tries to resolve the issue of the hostages. In a statement after its weekly meeting, the bloc expressed sympathy with families of the captured soldiers and policemen.
Separately, gunmen in a speeding car opened fire at a Lebanese Army position near the northern city of Tripoli Tuesday, killing one soldier and wounding two others, a security source said. The source told The Daily Star that the soldiers were shot at close range as they stood guard at their position near the Akoumi gas station in Beddawi at 4 a.m.
The dead soldier was identified as Mohammad Khaled al-Hussein. An Army statement confirmed the death of the soldier. – Additional reporting by Samya Kullab