IS demands 'buffer zone' in exchange for Lebanese troops
With 25 Lebanese policemen and soldiers still held captive by the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) and al-Nusra Front, a list of the groups' demands has been announced.
The demands were revealed by Wissam al-Masri, a Salafi sheikh who had returned from the outskirts of Arsal refugee camp with the communique from the IS group.
Masri read out the demands in Riad al-Solh square in Beirut, after first consulting with the families of the servicemen.
"IS has pledged not to kill or harm any of the soldiers during negotiations," he said.
He added that IS group "officials" in charge of the prisoners were angry about how Lebanese politicians have been dealing with Hizballah, which is fighting IS in Syria.
Sources told al-Araby al-Jadeed that Masri met with the IS group commander, Abu Walid al-Maqdisi, for the second time in Qalamoun, in western Syria.
Here he was reportedly told: "IS' is not with the Lebanese army or government, but with Hizballah, which is interfering in Syrian affairs, and killing women and children."
Masri announced three demands relayed to him.
- The establishment of a demilitarised buffer zone from the border region of Wadi Hmayyed, down to the outskirts of Tfail village.
- The construction of a hospital and drug repository in the buffer zone to treat those who are sick or have been wounded in battles with Hizballah.
- The release of all female Muslim detainees imprisoned in Lebanese jails on charges related to fighting in Syria.
Masri said the armed group is specifically demanding the release of Saja al-Dulaimi, reported to be the former wife of the self-styled IS "caliph", Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Also held by Lebanese authorities is Ola Sharkas, believed to be the wife of al-Nusra commander Anas Sharkas.
|A committee has been formed to pursue the case of the captive servicemen, who have been held by the groups since August.|
Lebanese authorities announced the arrests of the two women earlier this month, as they tried to enter Lebanon from Syria.
A committee has been formed to pursue the case of the captive servicemen, who have been held by the groups since August.
One member, Sheikh Omar Haidar, said he "[Welcomed] anyone trying to help with the case but only after being formally authorised by the IS group, the Lebanese government and al-Nusra Front".
The families believe Masri's actions and reception by the IS group indicate that he was authorised to be an intermediary with the militants.
Meanwhile, al-Nusra Front appear to have largely faded out of the picture as the al-Qaeda franchise has lost influence in the strategic border area of Qalamoun, which serves as supply route for militants.
The proposed buffer zone would prove to be a problem for the Lebanese.
Hizballah has advanced in these areas, while troops from the Lebanese army's 8th brigade have deployed along the border with Syria in several locations, often overlapping with Hizballah positions.
Al-Nusra Front previously announced that, following an attack on the outskirts of Assal al-Ward in Syria, a number of Hizballah fighters had been killed.
The Lebanese minister of interior, Nohad Machnouk, described the dead Hizballah fighters as "martyrs for Lebanon".
Meanwhile, the demands by the IS group are being viewed as an attempt to turn Lebanese opinion away from Hizballah.
It is believed that the Nusra Front had also previously attempted to pressure the families of captive soldiers to break off relations with Hizballah.
The issue of the captive soldiers has been ongoing since August after a battle between the Lebanese army, the IS group and al-Nusra Front.
Soldiers and police officers were captured when Syrian militants briefly overran the Lebanese border town of Arsal. The fighters withdrew after a truce negotiated by religious leaders, but kept 30 hostages.
Four have since been executed, while a fifth died from his injuries in captivity.
Negotiations stalled as a fragmented Lebanese government could not agree on whether to barter with the kidnappers in exchange for the hostages.
Both the IS group and al-Nusra Front had proposed negotiations in the past, and their demands included the release of ten prisoners held in Lebanese prisons jail, later reduced to five, for the release of all the soldiers.
This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.