‘Bring back our sons’

Patience of abducted soldiers’ families is running thin amid collapse of Qatari mediation.

Three jihadist groups, including the al-Nusra Front and ISIL, are holding an estimated 29 Lebanese hostages [AFP]
Three jihadist groups, including the al-Nusra Front and ISIL, are holding an estimated 29 Lebanese hostages [AFP]

Al-Bazaliyeh, Bekaa – The mourning service was muted; held on an overcast afternoon, with only a few dozen people showing up at a time to pay their respects.

The family of Ali al-Bazal, the 26-year-old Lebanese police officer who was killed on Friday evening by al-Nusra Front, had been reluctant to hold the ceremony, but felt it may help reduce the tensions running high in the area.

Bazal’s murder is the fourth to have taken place since more than 30 Lebanese army soldiers and police officers were taken hostage by al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in August, after they stormed the Lebanese border town of Arsal.

Seven were then released and one died as a result of his injuries. Currently, there are nine hostages with ISIL and another 14 with al-Nusra Front.

The security situation was tense over the weekend as dozens of armed masked men erected checkpoints in the village. Stopping vehicles as they drove through, the gunmen demanded to see the IDs of everyone they considered to be foreign to the neighbourhood.

“Up until now, we’ve left [the response to the killing] in the hands of the government, but after that it will be up to us what happens next,” Mustafa al-Bazal, a clan elder, told Al Jazeera. “Right now we’re trying to keep the situation calm on the streets.”

“We also ask the good people of Arsal to stop working with the militants,” Bazal added, in reference to reports that some residents are aiding the fighters.

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Both al-Nusra and ISIL have called for a prisoner swap, demanding that for each hostage the government release several Islamist prisoners held in Lebanese jails.

They have also demanded the release of female prisoners in Syria, as well as the release of the wives and children of militant leaders who were recently detained by the Lebanese authorities. They vowed to continue killing the hostages until their demands are met.

While the recent detentions would otherwise be considered a strong bargaining chip for the Lebanese government, the indecisiveness of political leaders and slow pace of negotiations have pushed the families to demand more than just a swap.

We expect and we hope the government will start by executing Jumana Hmyyad and Omar al Atrash, but we will decide what to do after, if the government does nothing, calling it 'an eye for an eye'.

- Mustafa al-Bazal, a clan elder

“We expect and we hope the government will start by executing Jumana Hmyyad and Omar al-Atrash, but we will decide what to do after, if the government does nothing,” said Bazal, calling it “an eye for an eye”.

Currently in Lebanese custody, Hmyyad is accused of driving an explosives-laden car, while al-Atrash is accused of plotting several of the car bombings that took place last year.

The call for their execution has been echoed by many of the family members who have also called for the government to resign “if it is incapable of following up on the case”.

The Lebanese government’s official position regarding the negotiations has been confusing – to say the least. Some ministers have called for indirect negotiations through intermediaries, others have called for the swap of detainees who have yet to be charged.

Local media reports reveal the daily spats between political factions on this issue, and a ccording to Jamal Wakim, a political analyst and professor at the Lebanese International University, the government has now reached a deadlock over the issue.

“Some politicians are trying to hold off in order to make political gains or get certain people released if there was to be a swap,” he told Al Jazeera. “After this latest killing, I don’t believe there is a solution in the near future, it will take several more months.”

“We don’t have unity in the government, we have deep divisions with the political vacuum, the lack of a president and the extension of parliament. The situation is getting worse.”

Much hope had been pinned on Qatar, who the Lebanese government had sought out as an official mediator after it had successfully negotiated the release of nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims who were kidnapped in 2012 and held hostage for over a year and a half near Aleppo by a Syrian armed group, as well as the release of 13 nuns from Maaloula in March who had been held by Nusra Front fighters.

RELATED: Talks Stalled over abducted Lebanese soldiers

This time, however, Qatar has thrown in the towel, declaring in a statement released on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website, that it will not continue its mediation efforts. The Qatari embassy in Beirut had yet to respond to questions regarding its withdrawal from the negotiations emailed in by Al Jazeera before publication.

Reports have emerged claiming that the Qatari envoy, Ahmed Khatib, had been working on a file unrelated to that of the hostages, and was withdrawn following the completion of that file. 

According to Kamel Wazne, a political analyst, Qatar may have withdrawn its mediation efforts because “the Qataris know the demands made by the hostage takers are very high and probably won’t result in a happy ending any time soon.”

“At the same time, the Lebanese government is working on this file in the wrong way, and they have a lot of other options that they’re not working on in order to solve the situation,” he told Al Jazeera.

This has left Lebanon with limited options as to how to proceed. The most prominent person playing the role of mediator between the fighters and the government, through the Committee of Muslim Scholars, is Sheikh Mustapha al-Hujeiri, a Muslim leader from Arsal with close ties to the hostage takers. 

Hujeiri is considered by many to be a controversial figure; he has been accused of working closely with the fighters, facilitating their movements between Arsal and the outskirts where they are based, yet he claims to maintain a solely humanitarian role, working closely with the Syrian refugees and charities through his mosque since the start of the Syrian crisis.

Nusra Front kills Lebanese policeman

During the armed clashes in Arsal in August, the police hostages were kept in his house for the first 24 hours, where he promised their families that they were his “guests” and would be “well taken care of”.

In October, he was formally charged by the Lebanese judiciary of belonging to al-Nusra Front , but was never arrested. Instead, he remains in Arsal where he is living in his mosque’s compound.

Since the beginning of the hostage crisis he has been one of the very few, along with the Qatari mediator, to maintain a consistent relationship with the fighters, even enabling the families of some of the hostages to visit their loved ones.

According to Wakim, Hujeiri’s role in the hostage situation is unsettling. “He’s been implicated in the kidnapping of the soldiers and police officers, and because he has sons in Lebanese prisons for committing violent acts in the country, he’s basically working to secure the release of his sons,” rather than working for the release of the hostages, he told Al Jazeera. 

For the families of the hostages, they, too, are holding him responsible for the continuing killings.

“We know who our enemy is; it’s Mustapha al-Hujeiri,” said Khalil al-Bazal, head of al-Bazaliyeh   municipality. “Our son was in his house, it was [Hujeiri’s] role to protect him.” 

Back in Beirut, hostages’ families are still considering their next steps. Camped out in the pouring rain, they refuse to back down.

“We place the responsibility on the government if any more harm happens to our sons,” Hussein Youssef, father of one of the kidnapped soldiers, told Al Jazeera. “And we will not move until we get them back.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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