FNAYDEK, Lebanon (AP) — Thousands of angry mourners on Wednesday buried a Lebanese soldier beheaded by Islamic militants, rocking his flag-draped coffin and firing their guns into the air as they accused the government of neglect for failing to negotiate his release.
The furor over the gruesome death of Sgt. Ali Sayid, 29, underscores the grave challenges that face the ill-equipped Lebanese military as it fends off an unprecedented jihadi threat from Syria-based militants.
Around two dozen more members of the country’s security forces remain held captive by militants. They were seized in August when several groups, including the Islamic State group and Nusra Front, overran a Lebanese border town, killing and kidnapping soldiers and policemen.
The government was racing to try and free the remaining captives amid anger fears that the army’s morale may erode as their captivity lingers.
“He was betrayed by all the politicians, all of them! By parliamentarians and officials, and by the country. He was sold for a cheap price!” Sayid’s uncle, Ahmad Sayid, shouted during the funeral, in a tearful speech carried on Lebanese television.
As he spoke, mourners fired guns in the air, packing the main street of his impoverished northern Lebanese hometown of Fnaydek. They jostled to help to carry the coffin, wrapped in a Lebanese flag. Mourners rocked the coffin side-by-side, a Lebanese tradition that acknowledges the youth of the dead person, as they marched below a large banner of Sayid.
Sayid, a Sunni, went missing when militants from Syria seized the border town of Arsal for several days in August in the most serious spillover yet of the neighboring Syrian civil war. The militants included the Islamic State group and al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, both of whom are holding captives.
Sayid surfaced in a video later announcing his defection from the army and his loyalty to the Islamic State group, but he may have spoken under duress. Later, another video surfaced of Sayid being decapitated by militants of the Islamic State group, according to photos posted on social networks on Aug. 28.
Families have demonstrated throughout Lebanon demanding the captives’ release, blocking roads and setting up protest tents.
There are an estimated 14 policemen and 12 soldiers still in militant custody, according to a count by rights group Human Rights Watch.
The group has swept through northern and western Iraq from its stronghold in neighboring Syria. It follows an ultra-conservative, violent interpretation of Islam and is accused by rights groups and the United Nations of committing war crimes, including the mass killings of soldiers, Shiite Muslims and followers of the ancient Yazidi faith in Iraq. On Tuesday, the group released a video that showed an Islamic State fighter beheading captive U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff.
To try halt their spread, the U.S. has conducted airstrikes in northern Iraq and shipped new weapons to Lebanon’s military, including automatic rifles, mortars and anti-tank artillery.
In Fnaydek, the words “No to the Islamic State” were spray painted on a wall. Anger against the government and military was palpable.
During the funeral, several frustrated Lebanese soldiers were heard cursing the government for abandoning its soldiers.
Militants in Syria have demanded the release of Islamists detained in Lebanese prisons in exchange for the soldiers and police. They also demanded the Shiite Lebanese militia Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria, where they are fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
That puts the army in the delicate situation of appearing to give in to the militants if it caves, and risk losing more soldiers if it doesn’t negotiate.
Aram Nerguizian, an expert on Lebanon’s military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said that the anger was unlikely to last.
“It’s normal to feel angry and a sense of fatigue,” he said. “But you can’t suss this out until you are in a combat environment.”
Still, the soldiers’ captivity threatens to erode the Lebanese military’s morale, others say.
“Subjugating the soldiers to a terrifying destiny without the military institution being able to protect its own, or to negotiate a safe passage for their release, undermines the credibility of the institution, and undermines the general morale of its soldiers,” Lebanese political scientist Imad Salamey said.
Hadid reported from Beirut.
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