BEIRUT: Lebanese authorities arrested four people suspected of belonging to a car-bombing ring, caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said Sunday, a day after a vehicle loaded with a large quantity of explosives was seized south of Beirut.
The fast-moving security developments, including last week’s deadly car bombing in Beirut’s southern suburb, have raised fears that Lebanon is rapidly being dragged into the civil war in Syria.
Political and sectarian tensions, fueled by the 29-month-old bloody conflict in Syria, have spiraled in recent weeks, threatening to destabilize Lebanon as the rival political leaders are sharply split in their support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and armed opposition groups seeking to topple the regime.
“Four people were arrested and are suspected of belonging to a cell planning to detonate explosives in vehicles,” Charbel told The Daily Star.
Security sources said the four suspects, including the ringleader, Ahmad al-Said, a Salafist in his 50s, were arrested in the Mraah neighborhood of Naameh, a coastal town about 15 kilometers south of Beirut, where General Security personnel had seized Saturday a car containing over 250 kilograms of explosives.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, a senior security source said the four, Lebanese and Palestinians, were linked to the explosives’ vehicle seized in Naameh.
Authorities are also looking for a fifth suspect identified as Mohammad Assem Ahmad, the source added.
“The four suspects were planning to take the vehicle to another area to detonate it,” the source said.
The Army sealed off Naameh Sunday night in search for another possible vehicle containing explosives, the source said. He added that the Army combed for the second time the house of Ahmad’s wife in Naameh and his car in search of explosives.
LBCI TV station said the Army arrested Fouad Akram Ghayyad in Naameh on suspicions of his involvement in terrorist acts.
According to the security source, there had been initial suspicions the explosive-laden car found in Naameh, an Audi, had been rigged to explode but this was later ruled out.
Authorities found five containers in the car each with 50 kilograms of TNT and a remote detonator, the source said, adding that the Audi was parked near Naameh’s municipality and a residential building complex.
The state-run National News Agency said in a report that General Security had previously been on the lookout for the vehicle.
“Fears are rising that terrorist groups might have entered Lebanon with a target bank. This prompts security agencies to double their efforts and mobilize their energies to track down and capture these groups and foil their schemes,” the source said.
The source said investigators were looking into whether the four suspects were linked to last week’s deadly car bombing in the Ruwaiss neighborhood in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold.
Last Thursday’s bombing in Ruwaiss, which killed at least 27 people and wounded over 300, was the latest in a series of security incidents linked to the war in Syria.
The Ruwaiss blast came more than a month after a similar car bombing in the Bir al-Abed neighborhood of the southern suburbs. That bombing wounded over 50 people and caused extensive damage to buildings.
Hezbollah, which in May announced it was fighting alongside Assad’s forces, had accused jihadists in Syria of the bombings in the southern suburbs and warned it would step up its military involvement in Lebanon’s neighbor in response.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said the bomb in Ruwaiss weighed more than 100 kilograms. But Al-Jadeed TV station, quoting security sources, said the bomb weighed over 400 kilograms and was detonated by remote control five minutes after the car’s driver stepped out.
The specter of car bombings has alerted the Army and security forces to tighten security measures in and around Beirut. Hezbollah’s security agents also deployed at key intersections in the southern suburbs, setting up checkpoints and searching cars entering or leaving the area for arms and explosives.While rescue teams and civil defense workers continued Sunday to remove heaps of debris and charred cars from Ruwaiss, a newly wedded couple visited the bombing site where they took pictures and video films amid a crowd of people who welcomed them in a symbolic defiant message against the bombers.
President Michel Sleiman praised the efforts made by security agencies in discovering the explosives-laden vehicle in Naameh.
Sleiman demanded that investigations and searches in the Ruwaiss bombing be intensified and urged security agencies to pursue and apprehend the culprits.
He said he hoped Lebanese leaders would close ranks in order to provide “a network of safety and stability for the country amid the turmoil in the region’s states, which are paying the price of violence, killings and destruction,” according to a statement released by the president’s office.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, chief of General Security, met caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to brief him on information concerning the explosives-rigged vehicle in Naameh. He also briefed Mikati on the available information on the Ruwaiss bombing.
Mikati praised Ibrahim and the Directorate General of General Security in maintaining security and uncovering schemes aimed at destabilizing the situation.
For his part, Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt warned against attempts at labeling security agencies in sectarian terms.
“Attempts to label security and military agencies in sectarian terms and transform them into groups to protect certain sects would be a big blow to the last fortresses that are still protecting Lebanon and preventing it from sliding into regional fires,” Jumblatt said in a speech read on his behalf by former PSP secretary Sharif Fayyad in the mountain town of Aley.
He hailed the “sacrifices of the Lebanese Army at a very tense political stage amid unprecedented divisions among the Lebanese.”
Separately, the Lebanese Army conducted a raid in Beirut’s southern suburbs at the weekend in search of a suspect linked to a recent rocket attack that wounded four people in the Lebanese capital, security sources said.
Saturday’s raid in the Burj al-Barajneh area was aimed at apprehending Ahmad Taha, suspected of being involved in the twin rocket attack on the Shiyah neighborhood on May 26, the sources said. But the Army could not find the suspect in his house, the sources said.
During the raid, the military searched a TV repair shop belonging to Taha and confiscated documents, cameras and CDs, the sources said. – With additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari and Jana al-Hassan