Hasan Darwish| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: A state funeral will be held later this week during a national day of mourning for 10 Lebanese soldiers after DNA tests Wednesday verified the identities of remains retrieved from the Lebanese-Syrian border area belonged to the missing servicemen. The Lebanese Army announced that DNA testing had positively identified samples from the bodies found on the Lebanese-Syrian border near the northeastern town of Arsal matched those taken from the family members of missing soldiers. The eight of the 10 missing servicemen were kidnapped by Daesh when the militants briefly overran Arsal in 2014 with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – previously known as the Nusra Front.
Since the retrieval of the bodies from the Arsal outskirts of Wadi al-Dibb on Aug. 27, a team of the Army’s forensic experts, molecular biologists from the University of Saint Joseph in Beirut and the forensic dentistry department at the Lebanese University have confirmed that the bodies belong to the soldiers, an Army statement said.
The team was supervised by the rector of the Lebanese University and an international dentistry expert, Prof. Fouad Ayyoub.
In a closed-door meeting with the families, attended by Ayyoub and Military Judge Saqr Saqr, Army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun revealed the results, thus bringing the three years of uncertainty for the families of the missing men to a close.
Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf also met the families in Yarze and offered his condolences. “They [the soldiers] are the heroes ... and on their behalf, I declare that the battle of ‘Fajr al-Joroud’ has ended victoriously,” Sarraf said.
On Aug. 19, the Army launched an offensive on the northeast Lebanese-Syrian border, seizing the mountains in the outskirts of Ras Baalbeck and Al-Qaa from Daesh. The offensive ended on Aug. 26 with a cease-fire and a Hezbollah-brokered safe-passage deal for Daesh militants and their families to leave for eastern Syria. The agreement hinged on information being provided on the fate of the abducted servicemen.
Sarraf also promised that top state politicians would follow up on the cause of the soldiers’ deaths, stressing that it would not become a matter of endless debate between rival political parties.
On Aug. 27, General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim told families he was almost sure the recovered bodies belonged to the captured men.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri vowed that justice would be served and “the perpetrators who committed this ugly crime,” would not escape punishment.
In a meeting with the families of the abducted soldiers and the fallen servicemen in the Army’s northeast Lebanon offensive, Hariri offered his condolences to the families. He said he felt “their agony and injustice. ... We all did all we could to liberate the kidnapped soldiers.”
Hariri admitted that Lebanon had failed to retrieve its captives from Daesh, in contrast to the 2015 exchange deal with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham that saw 16 policemen and soldiers liberated.
“Daesh entered Lebanon to instigate sedition among the Lebanese,” Hariri said, stressing that all individuals involved in the soldiers’ capture would “stand trial and will pay for their deeds.”
Hariri remembered his father, the late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, saying “I, like you, was struck by the assassination of my father ... and I have been persistent for 12 years [in seeking justice].”
The Lebanese Army Command called for a memorial service to be held under the auspices of President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri at 10 a.m. Friday at the Defense Ministry. The families of the 10 slain soldiers and dignitaries will also attend the ceremony.
Hariri announced the closure of all public institutions Friday to mark a national day of mourning that would see flags at government departments and embassies around the world flying at half mast. He also called for five minutes of silence from 10 a.m. across the country.
Private banks joined in to salute the Lebanese Army, saying they would also close Friday.
After the meeting with Hariri in the Grand Serail, members of the families of captured soldiers lamented the fate of their children, saying the servicemen paid with their lives for the sake of Lebanon.
“For three years we were saddened and tearful,” said Hussein Youssef, a father of one of the soldiers and the unofficial spokesperson for the families.
“We are proud of them,” Youssef said, pledging that the families “will not abandon their cause and will continue their sit-in” in Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown Beirut which they started shortly after the servicemen were taken by the militants.
Youssef said that the families consider the only fitting punishment for the perpetrators of the brutal killing of the soldiers to be execution.
“I know we do not implement capital punishment [in Lebanon any longer], but humanitarian laws are [for those] who are humane ... but not for those who decapitate and slaughter people,” Youssef said.
Although capital punishment is legal in the country, Lebanon has maintained a moratorium on the judgment since 2004.
U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag also commemorated the soldiers. “The servicemen will always serve as a symbol of courage, commitment and dedication to their country,” she said in the statement. – Additional reporting by Ghinwa Obeid.