SIDON, Lebanon: Fresh details emerged Monday about the twin suicide attacks against the Lebanese Army, as security sources said the perpetrators were likely linked to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in Syria and Salafist preacher Ahmad al-Assir.
Top officials strongly condemned what they described as terrorist attacks against the Army, saying they threatened Lebanon’s stability.
The Army described the assault as a suicide attack in a statement that offered a rare and detailed insight into Sunday night’s events, which at one point saw an attacker hug an Army officer before detonating a handheld grenade.
At 9 p.m., three men approached an Army checkpoint at the Awali River bridge by Sidon’s northern entrance on foot. When asked to show their IDs, one of the attackers dashed toward a soldier, waving a hand grenade.
The soldier opened fire, killing the attacker and causing the grenade to explode. Two soldiers were wounded, the statement said, and the two other men who were with the attacker fled the scene.
None of the assailants in the Awali attack were identified by the Army.
Another grenade was found in the dead attacker’s pocket and was immediately dismantled by an Army expert, the statement added.
Some 45 minutes later, the Army came under attack again in Majdalyoun.
The Army had set up a checkpoint following the first attack and was inspecting a brown GMC Envoy when one of the passengers stepped out of the vehicle, hugged Sgt. Samer Rizk and detonated a hand grenade, killing himself and Rizk. He also wounded a soldier, the statement said.
The attacker was identified by the Army as Bahaeddine al-Sayyed, a Palestinian. Fellow passengers Mohammad Jamil al-Zarif and Ibrahim al-Mir, both Lebanese, were killed after troops opened fired on the car.
Though the Army only named three assailants in the second attack, Army Intelligence have identified a fourth suspect also killed in the vehicle as Husam al-Sayyed, Bahaeddine’s brother, security sources told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.
The Army confiscated several hand grenades and automatic rifles from the vehicle as well as hundreds of rounds of rifle ammunition.
An investigation is underway to determine whether the men involved in the Awali incident have any connection to the group that attacked the Majdalyoun checkpoint.
The security sources, citing a preliminary investigation, said the suspects in the attacks may have links not only to Sheikh Assir but also the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda-linked rebel group in Syria fighting government troops loyal to President Bashar Assad.
Husam al-Sayyed had returned from Syria a month ago after having fought alongside rebels, the sources said.
They said one of the Majdalyoun attackers had also appeared in a photo alongside Mouin Abu Dahr, one of two suicide bombers who attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last month.
In June, deadly clashes broke out between the Army and gunmen loyal to Assir who were outspoken critics of Hezbollah. The confrontation left 18 soldiers and dozens of Assir’s supporters dead.
The Lebanese Army Monday deployed armored personnel carriers in and around Sidon.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said Lebanese officials knew in advance that assaults would take place against military checkpoints in south Lebanon.“We had information 10 days ago that Army checkpoints in the south will come under attack,” Charbel told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.
President Michel Sleiman said “this criminal, terrorist act” came at a time when the Lebanese were rallying behind the Army, seeking protection and stability.
Caretaker PM Najib Mikati said the incidents were terrorist attacks. “We call on everyone to support the Army and the rest of Lebanon’s security agencies and to prevent [anyone] from messing with our security,” he said in a statement.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said: “Solidarity with the Lebanese Army ... is the duty of every citizen who believes in the state and the role of the military institution in this sensitive stage of the history of Lebanon and the region.”
He also demanded the arrest and prosecution of all armed groups which he said were seeking to spread chaos and target Army checkpoints with the aim of hampering internal stability and igniting division.
“Sidon will not accept under any circumstances to be dragged again into a confrontation with the Lebanese Army, which is entrusted with the safety, security and dignity of its people.”
Those who targeted the Army, Hariri said, “are just a group of misled and irresponsible people, using armed chaos and sectarian tension to jeopardize the safety of the city ... resorting to suicidal projects and [offering] to those who carry illegal weapons free services enabling them to access Sidon and manipulate it.”
Sidon MP Bahia Hariri also condemned the “terrorist” attacks on the Army and called for an emergency meeting of the city’s officials later Monday.
Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam called for swift action to arrest the culprits and ensure maximum punishment for them.
Sidon’s mufti Salim Sousan condemned the attack and said the city would not be the site of sectarian strife.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called for “absolute unity” with the Army, saying the institution was fought for civil peace and stability.