A Lebanese soldier has defected to an Al Qaeda-affiliated rebel faction in neighboring Syria, denouncing the army as a "tool" of the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, according to a video uploaded to social media this week.
Atef Mohammad Saad Din, 23, was stationed at a checkpoint near the town of Arsal, close to the Lebanese-Syrian border. He reportedly went missing Monday.
Initial speculation in the media was that Saad Din had been kidnapped during an assault on border areas by Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel faction. But military sources were later quoted saying he had defected.
A six-minute video interview (in Arabic) surfaced Wednesday on the Al Qaeda group's official YouTube channel and seemed to confirm the defection. It shows Saad Din flashing his military ID to the camera with a black Islamist banner appearing prominently in the background. Beside him is some of the equipment he had presumably taken before defecting, including night-vision goggles and at least two M-16 rifles.
The defection is said to be the first for the Lebanese army since the Syrian civil war began in March 2011.
In the video, Saad Din, apparently a Sunni Muslim, begins by saying that "all the soldiers in the Lebanese army ... know that it's an army in the hands of Hezbollah,” a reference to the Shiite group that is a major political and military power in Lebanon.
"They take their orders from Hezbollah, they put the checkpoints where Hezbollah wants them, they stop whoever Hezbollah wants, and all the officers are under the command of Hezbollah,” the soldier says.
The Lebanese military is officially nonsectarian in makeup.
The rest of the interview is a litany of complaints against Hezbollah’s treatment of Sunnis in Lebanon. He accuses Hezbollah of humiliating and beating men at checkpoints, harassing and killing Sunni religious leaders, raiding mosques and restricting movement in Sunni areas. Hezbollah officials deny having any sectarian agenda.
Saad Din calls on Sunni soldiers to "wake up" before Syria's fate befalls Lebanon — a reference to the three-year-plus war that has pitted mostly Sunni rebels against the government of President Bashar Assad, backed by Hezbollah and Shiite Iran.
The video concludes with scenes of a smiling Saad Din being embraced by masked men, presumably Al Nusra Front fighters, as an Islamic chant is heard in the background.
Lebanese army spokesman Gen. Ali Qansoh, in comments to a Turkish news agency Wednesday, made light of the defection as an isolated case of "a deserter."
"This will have zero effect on the morale of the army," he said.
The Syrian war has deeply affected Lebanon, now home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Violence has frequently spilled across the border, threatening to stoke sectarian tension and destabilize Lebanon, still recovering from the effects of its own 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.
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