Anger in Lebanon after Al Qaeda executes police officer

Protesters block the main roads in Beirut after the murder of Ali Al Bazzal.

Families of Lebanese security forces who were kidnapped by Islamist militants block a main road during a protest after an Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria claimed it has killed kidnapped police officer Ali Bazzal, seen in poster with his daughter, in Beirut on December 6. Hussein Malla / AP Photo
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BEIRUT // Family members of Lebanese security forces held hostage by Islamist militants closed roads on Saturday following the execution of a police officer .

Ali Al Bazzal was killed on Friday after authorities announced the arrest of two women earlier in the week, one said to be the wife of the ISIL commander Abu Ali Al Shishani and the other said to be a former wife of the ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, along with their children.

“If the sisters that were unjustly arrested are not released, then after a short period of time the death sentence will be executed against another prisoner we hold,” Al Nusra said in a Twitter post on Friday that was accompanied by an image of Al Bazzal being shot in the head.

Al Bazzal was one of almost 30 security personnel kidnapped by militants from Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syria offshoot, and ISIL during an offensive in the border town of Arsal in August.

Terrified and angry, about 30 family members of the hostages blocked Beirut’s main intersections. “What are we to do? They are going to kill my husband and there is no involvement from the Lebanese people or the state,” said Nazha Geagea, wife of Pierre Geagea, another policeman held by Al Nusra.

She held hands with her four-year-old daughter, Maria, to block the road leading north from Beirut.

Al Bazzal’s family members, who blocked roads in their Bekaa Valley town Bazzaliyeh, have demanded that the Lebanese government begin executing Islamist prisoners whose release Al Nusra is demanding in exchange for freeing its captives.

Relatives of the hostages also set up checkpoints in the Bekaa valley and checked IDs of passing Sunnis.

At least one Sunni man was wounded in what appears to be a retaliatory attack in the Bekaa Valley.

Around Bazzaliyeh, a majority Shiite town, gunmen took to the streets on Friday night and kidnapped several men from Sunni-majority Arsal, where Syrian refugees have sought shelter and the army clashed with Islamist militants in August.

In a video also released on Friday, Al Shishani, a former Al Nusra fighter who then pledged allegiance to Al Baghdadi, threatened to target the families of Lebanese soldiers as well as Shiite women and children. Flanked by two masked militants and sitting in front of the black and white flag used by ISIL, he also praised Al Baghdadi.

ISIL and Al Nusra have fought each other and other rebel groups in some areas of Syria. But in the west of the country they have formed a loose alliance to battle the Lebanese army and Hizbollah, which has sent fighters to support the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

Both groups have militants hiding out in the mountains above Arsal and teamed up during the August assault on the town. As temperatures drop and snow threatens to cut off supply lines, both groups want the Lebanese army to allow their men come out of hiding.

“All your wives, children and men are legitimate targets now,” Al Shishani said in the video, referring to Shiites as “slaves of Khomeini”.

He also referred to ongoing talks for the release of the captured security personnel. “If my wife is not released soon, do not dare to dream about the release of the soldiers without negotiations,” he added.

The Lebanese government hopes that the captured wives could be used as a bargaining chip in its negotiations for the hostages, interior minister Nouhad Machnouk told local newspaper Al Akhbar, adding that publicising their arrest was "a big mistake".

The best case scenario for the government is that the militants scale back their demands from the release of hundreds of Islamist prisoners to freeing only Mr Al Baghdadi’s wife and child, said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

"It changes all the conditions for negotiations," Mr Salamey told The National. "IS originally had a swap deal in mind with prisoners, now this will have to change." He was referring to ISIL by an alternative acronym.

Family members of the captured police and soldiers expressed little faith in that scenario.

A negotiator appointed by Qatar has not managed to make much progress. Al Nusra and ISIL executed three hostages before Al Bazzal and threatened to kill more, leading to increased tensions in Lebanon, with roads frequently being closed in the northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and Beirut by angry citizens.

Family members of soldiers are also being threatened directly in phone calls and text messages from ISIL.

Hussein Yousef’s son, Mohammed, is among those being held by ISIL.

For months, they have called Mr Yousef, threatening to kill his son.

“You people know nothing. We just want some dignity!” he shouted at civilians who were angry at the road closures. “I’m here because my son is going to die and the state is not doing anything to stop it.”