TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Syrian state television broadcast images Sunday of more than five dead bodies with Lebanese identification, reporting that the men were among 21 Lebanese Salafist fighters who fell into a Syrian Army ambush Friday.
The station said that the men were killed in Tal Kalakh after sneaking into the country from Wadi Khaled, and that others in the group had been wounded.
Late Sunday, state TV aired another report saying the Syrian army thwarted an attempt to smuggle Al-Qaeda fighters from Lebanon into Syria through the border Qusayr region. While, Syrian TV said some of the fighters were “killed,” it did not elaborate on their nationalities.
There have been conflicting reports about the fate of the 21 men. Tripoli based Sheikh Nabil Rahim, who is in contact with the families of the missing, told The Daily Star that three of the five bodies shown on television had been identified. He named them as Khodr Alameddine, Hussein Sroor and Abdel-Hamid Agha.
Aside from these three, Rahim said “there are no accurate numbers of those killed … or information on who was arrested or managed to flee.”
There was also divergence in information about how and when the men went to Syria.
Sources familiar with the situation as well as several Free Syrian Army officers told The Daily Star that between 25 and 27 men, ranging in age from 18 to 25, gathered for evening prayer in a Tripoli mosque Thursday. Planning to die in battle, some of them wrote their final wills.
According to these sources, the men hail from various areas, including Tripoli, Beddawi and Akkar, and some are Palestinian members of the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam.
All of the men were Salafists who believe their religion dictates they should fight Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
The sources said that the men planned to take a smugglers’ route from the Lebanese village of Hleit to Qalaat al-Hosn in Syria after dawn prayers Friday. The group fell into an ambush in Tal Sirin, on the way to Qalaat al-Hasan.
These sources added that some of those who were not killed appear to have fled, while others were taken to safety by the Free Syrian Army.
In some Tripoli Salafist circles, an account is circulating that the Syrian Army was tipped off about the group’s presence by four men, whose nationalities are unknown but have been named as Osama Rashad, Mohammad Rashad, Khaled Rashad and Khaled Othman.
Another report said that the men did not all leave Thursday, and were in fact split into two groups. According to this version, one of the groups was attacked by the Syrian Army last week, but the announcement of their deaths was delayed until Friday.
The father of one of the missing men is refusing to receive condolences for his son, 18-year-old Mohammad Mir. Abu Abdullah said he has not heard anything about his son, but knows that one of his son’s friends who went with him to Syria, Abdel Rahman Ayoubi, sent a Facebook message saying Ayoubi had survived along with many of his companions.
Abu Abdullah said he had received information that 17 members of the group are alive in a secret Free Syrian Army base in Tal Kalakh, and that the wounded are receiving treatment.
The parents of five more of the Salafists have erected a tent in the Bab al-Tabbaneh area of al-Mankoubin area, in an attempt to pressure the government to uncover the fates of their sons. The families involved in the sit-in are seeking information on Malek Dib, Abdel-Karim Ibrahim, Youssef Abu Arida, Bilal Ghoul and Abdel-Rahman al-Hasan.
Their relatives raised doubt over the authenticity of the photos aired on Syrian state television.
“We still know nothing about my brother Malek and his companions,” Jihad Dib said.“I ask the government and Interior Minister [Marwan Charbel] whether they intend to take action to reveal the fate of our brothers,” Dib added. “Aren’t they Lebanese?”
Dib said the government is working hard to find out what happened to the nine remaining Lebanese pilgrims kidnapped in Syria in May, but is doing little to find out the fate of his relatives.
Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim, the imam of a local mosque who visited the protesters, said the families of the men plan to act peacefully to achieve their goal.
“On Monday, we will hold a sit-in at al-Tal Square [in Tripoli] after afternoon prayers. We are not acting against anyone in Tripoli … we are [only] interested in revealing the fate of our sons … our problem is with the Syrian regime and not with anyone else.”
A sit-in will also be held Monday at Tripoli’s Lebanese University Campus, where Dib registered one day before his disappearance.
For his part, Future Movement MP Mouein Merhebi said he was proud of the “martyrs” who fell in Syria.
Merhebi told a local TV station that the “blessed” Syrian revolution would triumph, hoping that a similar revolution would erupt in Lebanon against “the killers” of March 14 officials.
MP Khaled Daher, from the same bloc, said over the weekend that only four men had been killed in the assault, adding that the Salafists were not sent to Syria by any political group. He said they chose to fight in Syria after watching the Syrian regime commit massacres on television, and because Hezbollah is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The Lebanese Army which deployed across Tripoli Friday, remained out in force Sunday. There was no armed presence in the streets, but scattered gunfire could be heard.
Intense gunfire could be heard Sunday night in Nahr Abu Ali, which overlooks Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.
Separately, the Army said in a Sunday statement that shots were fired at 6:30 p.m. at its headquarters in Masharih al-Qaa by “gunmen from the Syrian side of the border, prompting soldiers to respond.” The Army reported no casualties, and said that it was boosting its presence in the area. – With additional reporting by Wassim Mroueh