BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army stepped up its security measures and expanded its deployment in Tripoli Sunday, two days after deadly twin car bombings struck the northern city, as fears grew of more attacks aimed at inciting sectarian strife in the politically divided country.
Two sheikhs, allegedly supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, have been arrested so far for interrogation in connection with Friday’s car bombs that ripped through Al-Taqwa and Al-Salam mosques in Tripoli, killing at least 47 people and wounding over 500 others in the country’s deadliest attack in decades.
The Tripoli blasts, coming exactly eight days after a similar car bombing that killed 30 people and wounded over 300 in Beirut’s southern suburb of Ruwaiss, have heightened fears of the country sliding into Iraq-style sectarian violence as a result of the rival factions’ sharp divisions over the 29-month-old civil war in Syria.
The bombings have also sparked renewed calls for the formation of a new government comprising all the political parties in order to confront mounting security threats and prevent the country’s drift toward sectarian strife.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said all security agencies were working to confront a scheme aimed at inciting strife in Lebanon.
Speaking in a local TV interview, Charbel voiced fears that car bombings might strike other areas with the aim of sparking sectarian strife. He said the bombers who targeted Ruwaiss were the same ones who attacked the two mosques in Tripoli.
Police are expected to release Sheikh Abdel-Razzak Hammoud, who was apprehended for questioning Saturday, while Sheikh Ahmad Gharib is to remain in custody for further interrogation, a judicial source told The Daily Star.
According to the source, Gharib’s arrest was due to his appearance in surveillance video near Al-Salam Mosque at the time of the explosion. The sheikh is not known to frequent the city and is not from Tripoli.
Gharib is said to be close to the Syrian intelligence agency and is considered a link between the agency and Hashem Minkara, head of the pro-Syrian regime Islamic Tawheed Movement, which is based in Tripoli.
The Army boosted its deployment throughout Tripoli’s neighborhoods with the aim of maintaining security in Lebanon’s second largest city.
“As part of consolidating security and stability and reassuring citizens in the city of Tripoli, Army units continued reinforcing their deployment in the city’s various neighborhoods by stepping up their security measures,” the military said in a statement.
It said the measures included setting up mobile and stationary checkpoints at the city’s main entrances to inspect vehicles and check people’s identification cards, mounting armored and foot patrols and installing observation points.
The death toll could still rise, and police asked the relatives of those who went missing after the explosions to undergo DNA testing to try and identify their loved ones with the remains found at the scene of the blasts.
Parts of a human head were found on the roof of a building near Al-Taqwa Mosque, the state-run National News Agency reported. It said police forensics experts came and took the head parts.
President Michel Sleiman, who cut short a private visit to France following the Tripoli bombings, made an urgent appeal to rival political leaders, asking them to safeguard the nation by forming an all-embracing government. He also urged the feuding parties to return to the National Dialogue table without conditions and disassociate the country from regional conflicts.
Addressing the nation in a televised speech Saturday night, Sleiman said he shared the citizens’ concerns over dangers facing the country, at the forefront of which is “the mounting terrorist danger and fears of Lebanon descending into strife.”
“With the presence of these dangers that threaten the country and shed blood indiscriminately, I call on everyone, without exception, to take a brave stance and a responsible national decision, distant from foreign and regional interests ... to meet together immediately within an all-embracing government and around the National Dialogue table without conditions,” he said.
Sleiman reiterated his call on the March 8 and March 14 parties to abide by the “Baabda Declaration,” which calls for distancing Lebanon from regional and international conflicts, particularly the conflict in Syria.“I appeal to politicians, people of power and influence, [political] leaders and religious leaders to adopt moderation in their political rhetoric and work once again to ensure a full commitment in words and deeds to the Baabda Declaration which is in Lebanon’s highest interest,” he said.
Sleiman and March 14 leaders have blasted Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, calling it a violation of the “Baabda Declaration.”
Sleiman called on the military to raise its readiness to the maximum in order to monitor and crack down on criminals and terrorists and anyone seeking to undermine the security and safety of the Lebanese.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai blamed the political leaders’ disagreement for the victims killed in the Ruwaiss and Tripoli bombings.
“All the martyrs who fell in Tripoli and the southern suburbs had died as a result of a lack of accord among the Lebanese and their failure to reconcile and sit together,” Rai said in a statement after offering his condolences in Tripoli to the city’s sheikhs and lawmakers over the victims of the twin bombings.
Addressing rival leaders, Rai said: “Isn’t all this innocent blood enough reason for reconciliation?”
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati headed a security meeting in his Tripoli residence and then inspected the blast scene outside Al-Salam Mosque. Mikati also called for national unity to face the wave of car bombings targeting the country.
The Muslim Scholars Committee also held a meeting in Tripoli’s Sheikh Salem al-Rafei’s residence and considered that the “terrorist” blasts in Tripoli targeted Muslims and the committee.
Sidon’s MP Bahia Hariri visited Tripoli and inspected the bombing sites. Accompanied by former police chief Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, Hariri also visited the wounded in hospitals.
She later attended a Future Movement meeting held at the residence of Tripoli MP Samir Jisr. Tripoli’s Future MPs rejected calls for citizens to arm, saying there is no alternative to the state.
“The participants affirmed that there is no alternative to the state and the security it provides,” Jisr told a news conference after the meeting.
Separately, Kuwait has asked its citizens to leave Lebanon for their own safety following the bombings in Tripoli.
“Due to the state of security and instability which killed and injured many people, the Embassy of the State of Kuwait in Lebanon urges Kuwaiti citizens in Lebanon to leave the country for their own safety,” the embassy said in a statement Saturday, according to the state-run KUNA news agency.