BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army announced Tuesday that it had arrested 10 members of a “fundamentalist terrorist cell” that was planning attacks on UN peacekeepers in South Lebanon and foreign targets. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) accused the cell, made up mostly of foreign Arab nationals, of observing the operations of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the LAF in preparation for an attack, “plotting terrorist attacks” abroad and providing wanted foreigners and Fatah al-Islam members with forged
ID cards as well as passage to and from the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp.
The LAF fought a vicious three-month long battle against Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in the summer of 2007, leaving hundreds of civilians and more than 160 LAF soldiers dead.
“As a result of intensive investigations carried out by the army, with regard to following up on the issue of fundamentalist terrorist cells, the Lebanese army intelligence unit was able to arrest one of those cells made up of 10 people from different Arab nationalities,” the LAF statement said.
In addition to plotting attacks, the army listed a series of other criminal activities the group was engaged in, including staking out money exchange and jewelry stores for potential robberies and aiding “wanted terrorists” to escape from Ain al-Hilweh.
A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press, said that while the nationalities of the suspects had not been released, the men had been in contact with militant groups like Al-Qaeda and Fatah al-Islam.
According to a separate security source, quoted by Reuters, the cell’s leader was a Syrian national who had been apprehended with six separate passports.
UNIFIL has been targeted before by fundamentalist groups in the South, including a deadly 2007 attack on Spanish and Columbian peacekeepers.
UNIFIL’s spokesperson Yasmina Bouziane said UNIFIL took all threats seriously and had security measures in place, but she noted that security against such groups was primarily the responsibility of the LAF.
“This is a matter that is dealt with by the Lebanese authorities and the Lebanese army … the LAF has the primary responsibility for security in UNIFIL’s area of operations,” she told The Daily Star.
UNIFIL’s mandate was established in 1978 to patrol the restive Lebanon-Israel border. The force was expanded to nearly 13,000 personnel after the July 2006 War with Israel.
The army statement noted that members of the cell had used their jobs with private institutions and companies in Lebanon to carry out surveillance work, and urged employers to be vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the proper authorities.
The statement added that suspects had been transferred to the judiciary. Local reports said the men had been transferred to military Judge Saqr Saqr.
The resistive Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, Lebanon’s largest and most autonomous, is located in the southern coastal city of Sidon. The army does not have access to the camp which often witnesses clashes between rival Palestinian factions.