Lebanon’s Army is in contact with its Syrian counterpart to determine the fate of Lebanese Islamist fighters reportedly killed by Syrian troops, the interior minister said Monday, as authorities sought help from Damascus and the Red Cross to clear the mystery surrounding the case.
“The Lebanese Army is in contact with the Syrian Army over the fate of the Lebanese killed in Syria,” Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told The Daily Star.
He said the Lebanese government has yet to receive official information from Syrian authorities on last week’s incident in which about 21 young men from the northern city of Tripoli were killed or wounded in an ambush by the Syrian army in the town of Tal Kalakh near the border with Lebanon, a security source has told The Daily Star.
Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour telephoned the Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel Karim Ali asking him that Syrian authorities hand over the bodies of the Lebanese killed in Tal Kalakh, the state-run National News Agency reported.
Ali told Mansour that he will urgently contact the higher Syrian authorities on this matter and will inform him of the results of his contacts, it said.
The incident, the first of its kind since the popular upheaval against Syrian President Bashar Assad erupted in March 2011, heightened tensions in Lebanon, already sharply divided over the bloody conflict in Syria. It also raised fears of the turmoil next door spilling over into Lebanon.
“We have not officially been informed [by the Syrian side] about the number of Lebanese killed,” Charbel said. He added that his information indicated some Lebanese caught in the ambush were killed, some were wounded and others were taken prisoner, and yet some managed to escape.
Asked if the Lebanese government was planning to officially ask the Syrian government to provide it with information about the incident, Charbel said the case of the slain Lebanese could be discussed during a Cabinet meeting scheduled Tuesday should Mikati bring up the issue.
“Prime Minister Mikati is very much concerned with this issue and is taking all necessary measures to determine the fate of the Lebanese,” he said.
Earlier Monday, Mikati asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to help retrieve the bodies of the slain Lebanese and obtain information about the fate of the others. He made the request during a telephone conversation with Jurg Montani, the head of the ICRC delegation in Lebanon.
“Mikati asked the ICRC to intervene with the concerned authorities in Syria to retrieve the bodies of Lebanese who were killed in Syria recently and obtain information about the fate of others,” according to a statement released by Mikati’s office.
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 last 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.
Tension ran high in Tripoli following unfounded rumors that rival factions engaged in kidnapping of their supporters. Schools closed at noon and sent students home, fearing an outbreak of violence in a city that had been rocked in the past by clashes between supporters and opponents of Assad.
Families of the slain Lebanese staged a sit-in in Tripoli’s Tal Square, demanding that Lebanese authorities act to reveal the fate of their loved ones.
Meanwhile, President Michel Sleiman urged rival factions to commit to the government’s dissociation policy toward the crisis in Syria and avoid involvement in the Syrian conflict.
“The president hopes that everyone in Lebanon remains committed to the government’s policy as well the National Dialogue Committee via the Baabda Declaration which calls for distancing Lebanon from others’ conflicts and non-interference in their affairs,” according to a statement released by his office.
Sleiman said the Lebanese Army and security forces were taking measures to prevent the flow of arms and gunmen from Lebanon to Syria. He added that citizens should not shelter gunmen, adding that they would be held accountable for such actions.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said he is against any military involvement in the conflict: “As much as we support the Syrian people in their call for freedom, we are against any military involvement by any Lebanese side in the Syrian crisis.”