BEIRUT (AP) — An al-Qaida-linked group in Syria announced Friday that it killed a Lebanese soldier it was holding captive as retaliation for the Lebanese government's detention of the wives and children of Islamic militants.
The Nusra Front group said in a statement published on its official Twitter account that it shot dead Ali Bazzal on Friday night. It published a photo purporting to show Bazzal being shot in the head and threatened to kill more soldiers if the relatives of the militants are not released immediately.
The Syria-based Nusra Front and Islamic State group are holding some 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen captive after kidnapping them in August during a cross-border raid. IS has already beheaded two, and the Nusra Front shot dead a third. Bazzal would be the fourth captive soldier to die.
There was no immediate confirmation from Lebanese officials of the news, which is likely to further inflame tensions in Lebanon.
Lebanese security officials this week said they have arrested a wife and child of the Islamic State group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Iraqi officials have disputed that announcement. Authorities said they also arrested the wife and two children of another Sunni militant commander in Syria, Abu Ali al-Shishani.
Al-Shishani, who has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, had threatened to "retaliate" against families of Lebanese soldiers over the arrest, according to a new militant posting.
In the video released late Thursday, al-Shishani — whose real name is Anas Sharkas, according to Lebanese authorities — also said that mediation efforts for the release of the Lebanese soldiers have stopped, until his family is freed.
It was unclear from that statement what role al-Shishani has played so far in the mediation efforts, which are led by Qatar, a traditional Mideast mediator.
In his threat, al-Shishani says Shiite women and children, along with families of Lebanese soldiers, will be "legitimate targets" for his militants. Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah group has sent fighters to back Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.
In the video, al-Shishani, who is shown seated in front of a black flag of the Islamic State group, flanked by two masked gunmen, says one of his detained children is 4 and the other is still a baby.
In Syria, Muslim militants pushed forward in their offensive on a major military air base in eastern Syria on Friday, capturing a nearby village in an attempt to take one of Assad's last outposts in a province that borders Iraq, activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said clashes continued for the second day around the air base just outside the contested eastern city of Deir el-Zour. The Observatory said fighters from the Islamic State group captured the strategic village of Jafra reaching the fence of the sprawling air base.
The Observatory, which has a network of activists around the country, said the fighting that started with an Islamic State offensive early Thursday has killed 30 government troops and 27 jihadi fighters.
The key military air base gives government warplanes a hub from which to bomb IS-held cities and towns across much of eastern Syria. For the Islamic State group, capturing the airport would eliminate the main pocket of resistance in the area and provide a major morale and propaganda boost after a string of setbacks in recent weeks.
Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.