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Jihadists holding Lebanon soldiers seek prisoners swap ‘End mistreatment of Syrian refugee in Arsal’

BEIRUT, Aug 13, (AFP): Jihadists who are holding 36 Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage after fighting by the Syrian border are seeking a swap for Islamist prisoners, an informed source told AFP on Wednesday. The 36 have been missing since clashes broke out in the town of Arsal in eastern Lebanon on Aug 2, after the arrest of a Syrian man accused of belonging to a jihadist group. On Wednesday, the source who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a video showing seven of the kidnapped soldiers apparently in good health was handed to several Sunni sheikhs mediating for their release.

The kidnappers also presented demands, including the release of the Syrian man arrested on Aug 2, Imad Ahmed Jomaa, who had reportedly joined the extremist Islamic State group after leaving al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Al-Nusra Front. In addition, the kidnappers are seeking the release of an unspecified number of other Islamist prisoners, the source said.

Sheikh Adnan Amameh, a spokesman for the clerics trying to mediate with the kidnappers, had no comment on the alleged bid for a prisoner swap. But he confirmed that a video showing several kidnapped soldiers had been given to authorities. “We handed the relevant Lebanese state authorities a video showing a number of soldiers in good health, who identified themselves, as well as demands of the other side (the jihadists),” he told AFP. Amameh said the jihadists had requested goodwill measures by the Lebanese authorities before concrete negotiations, including an end to army “mistreatment” of Syrian refugees in Arsal.

The clashes in Arsal ended five days after they began with a fragile truce negotiated by the Sunni clerics that saw the jihadists withdraw from the town and the army regain control. But the army lost 19 soldiers during the fighting, in addition to the 19 that remain held by kidnappers. Seventeen policemen are also being held hostage.

Dozens of militants are thought to have been killed in the fighting, along with tens of civilians, though there has been no official toll given for either. The clashes were the worst violence in the border region since the Syrian conflict began next door in March 2011. Majority Sunni Muslim Arsal is largely sympathetic to the Syrian uprising, and is hosting some 47,000 Syrian refugees, but several neighbouring Shiite villages back the Syrian regime, and the neighbouring conflict has raised tensions in the area and Lebanon more broadly.

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