BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon is negotiating with Sunni militants to prevent the killing of two captured soldiers, the country’s health minister told Reuters on Tuesday.
Wael Abu Faour would not say which group he was talking with but both Islamic State and al Qaeda’s Syria wing, the Nusra Front, have captured Lebanese soldiers. Three have been killed.
“We received a specific request from the kidnappers in exchange for halting the execution of the soldiers ... Matters are going in a positive direction,” he said, without giving details on the demand.
Many Sunni Syrian rebels and hardline Lebanese Sunni Islamists accuse Lebanon’s army of working with the Lebanese Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to aid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Shi’ite-derived Alawite minority.
A two-day battle over the weekend between Sunni militants and the army ended on Monday when government forces retook neighborhoods in the coastal city of Tripoli.
At least 11 soldiers, eight civilians and 22 militants were killed in the fighting. The army was sweeping the area for mines on Tuesday, a security source said.
The army said in a statement on Tuesday that it had arrested 33 people “suspected of belonging to terrorist groups.”
The fighting marked the worst spillover of Syria-related violence into Lebanon since early August, when Islamist insurgents staged an incursion into the border town of Arsal and took about 20 soldiers captive.
Lebanon suffered 15 years of civil war which ended in 1990.
Former prime minister and Lebanon’s most influential Sunni politician, Saad al-Hariri, said on Tuesday the army should be supported.
“The Sunnis in Lebanon were and always will be the solid base for moderation and unity,” he said in a statement. “We will face any attempt to undermine the army.”
Reporting by Laila Bassam and Oliver Holmes; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky