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Al-Nusra Uses 3 ‘Hezbollah’ Prisoners to Pressure it to Cease Arsal Operations | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The Lebanese army in Arsal. (Reuters)

Beirut – The al-Nusra Front released on Tuesday a video of three “Hezbollah” fighters, whom it had detained in 2015 and 2016 in the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria.

The detainees have been used as a negotiations card by al-Nusra after they pleaded with the party to cease its military operations in the outskirts of Lebanon’s northeastern border region of Arsal.

Al-Nusra uncovered the video after indirect negotiations were launched over granting the extremist group and its leader in the outskirts Abou Malek al-Talleh safe passage to northern Syria after “Hezbollah” announced that the operations in the region were nearing their end.

Sheikh Mustafa al-Hujeiri has been mediating between the Lebanese government, “Hezbollah” and the extremist group. The start of the negotiations led to a temporary suspension of military operations in Arsal after the party had seized more than 80 percent of territory that was under al-Nusra’s control.

The lull in the battle was short-lived and fighting resumed some 24 hours after the ceasefire was announced. The renewed fighting on Tuesday afternoon appeared to be a sign that the negotiations had failed.

Arsal field sources spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat of information that ISIS terrorists and al-Nusra extremists had joined ranks in the battle against “Hezbollah.” Predictions that the two sides would come together were made two days ago in anticipation of the potential failure of negotiations.

After announcing that it had captured the majority of land seized by al-Nusra, the Lebanese party had called on the extremist fighters to surrender “in order to ensure their safety.” Lebanese media said that “Hezbollah” had set as a condition al-Nusra declaring that it was ready to withdraw from the area before looking into a mechanism that would transport the fighters out of the battle zone.

The party later said that it did not receive an answer to its demands, which prompted it to escalate its military operations.

Informed Lebanese sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that al-Talleh had demanded that he be allowed to leave the area with his medium and heavy weapons, a request that “Hezbollah” rejected. The party instead said that al-Talleh and his fighters should withdraw with only their personal weapons and after al-Nusra announces its surrender.

If these demands are fulfilled, the party would ensure their safe passage to northern Syria.

The al-Nusra central command apparently sought to raise the stakes by revealing the capture of the three “Hezbollah” fighters. This indicates that the negotiations in Arsal were no longer limited to al-Talleh, but they have come to include al-Nusra’s main command.

The prisoners were identified as Hussein Nazih Taha and Mahdi Hani Shoaib, who were detained in the town of al-Ais in the outskirts of Aleppo in November 2015, and Mohammed Jawad Ali Yassine, who was detained in the same town in April 2016. A third “Hezbollah” fighter was imprisoned with Taha and Shoaib in 2015, but he was not shown in Tuesday’s video.

The three detainees urged the party to stop the attack on Syria’s al-Qalamoun “or we will be victims if this demand is not met.”

They also pleaded with their relatives “to mobilize and pressure the party to halt this attack” against al-Nusra in the Arsal outskirts.

On the ground in Arsal, “Hezbollah” media said that the party continued to make progress, escalating the fight against “what remained” of al-Nusra’s fighters in the area. Al-Manar television reported that a “two-prong attack was launched to capture the last remaining land that al-Nusra controls in the outskirts.”

Field sources said that the party launched a wide attack on all fronts against the extremists’ positions in Wadi Hmeid and Wadi al-Rahwa. Hours later, the media said that the party had captured Wadi Kamil, Wadi Hammoudi, Makaabat al-Furn, al-Baydar, Shaabat al-Nahleh and Wadi Daleel al-Barrak.

In the meantime, the Lebanese Red Cross, with the Lebanese army’s support, had transferred nine refugee women and children from encampments on the outskirts of Arsal to the town of Arsal. A woman, who had gone into labor, was also transported from an encampment in Wadi Hmeid to a nearby hospital.