BEIRUT – Al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate released a video Saturday showing Lebanese policemen and a soldier captured by the group earlier this month during the most serious cross-border attack since Syria’s conflict began more than three years ago.
The captives said they will be killed if Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah movement, which is backing Syrian President Bashar Assad, does not withdraw its fighters from Syria.
The al-Qaida-branch known as Nusra Front is also demanding the release of detainees held in Lebanon, some of whom were charged in connection to bombings that killed and wounded dozens of people over the past year, according to Lebanese media.
Lebanon’s Association of Muslim Scholars, a group of Sunni clerics, has been trying to mediate a deal to release the captives.
The video showed nine bearded men, eight of them in police uniforms and one wearing military fatigues.
Lebanese army commander Jean Kahwaji told the leading daily An-Nahar that there are 20 soldiers missing. He defended his command in the face of criticism by local media, saying their posts in border areas were reinforced before the attack.
Other soldiers and policemen are believed to be held by other rebel groups who took part in the Aug. 2 attack on the Lebanese border town of Arsal, which is home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.
The video, released by Nusra Front’s media arm, al-Manara al-Baydha, appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events.
Syria’s civil war has spilled over into Lebanon on multiple occasions and inflamed sectarian tensions in the tiny, multi-confessional country. Lebanese Sunnis tend to support the Sunni rebels while Shiites mainly back Assad.
Hezbollah, which openly joined the war in Syria last year, is not likely to respond to the pleas of the captured troops, who appear to be speaking under duress. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to keep his fighters in Syria as long as needed, portraying the war as a struggle against Sunni extremists who pose a threat to Lebanon as well.
The Hezbollah fighters have been instrumental to Assad’s success on the battlefield, and support from the Iranian-backed group appears to have tipped the balance in the government’s favour – especially in areas along the Lebanese border and near the Syrian capital of Damascus.
The U.N. says more than 191,000 people have been killed since Syria’s crisis began in March 2011.
© The Canadian Press, 2014