SIDON, Lebanon: Lebanese Army soldiers, backed by armored vehicles, launched an unprecedented dragnet in areas around Sidon Thursday, searching caves and valleys and arresting five suspects over twin suicide attacks that targeted the military Sunday night in areas east and north of Sidon.
The operation targeted wanted individuals as well as arms caches, according to an Army statement.
The statement did not mention the names of the individuals arrested, but security sources speaking to the The Daily Star identified two as Alaa Saleh and Nour al-Sabbagh, adding that they had been arrested during a raid on houses belonging to the fugitive Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in Abra.
Two others, identified only by their last names, Orr and Souri, were also apprehended. All four are Lebanese.The search swept through the valleys of Bisri and around Bqosta, along with Sharhabeel and the old town of Abra, east of Sidon, all the way to the Kfar Falous valley in the Jezzine district of south Lebanon.
Troops, backed by a reconnaissance plane that flew over Sidon for the first time, searched caves, tossing percussion grenades ahead of the raids, the sources said.
The sources added that soldiers raided the home of Sheikh Othman Hneini, another pro-Assir preacher, but he was not present. Authorities also searched Syrian refugee shelters, but no Syrians were arrested.
Two soldiers were wounded in the first Sunday evening attack on an Army checkpoint near the Awali River Bridge, at the northern entrance to Sidon. Less than an hour later, a first sergeant was killed and another soldier wounded in the second attack in Majdalyoun, east of Sidon.
Mohammad Jamil al-Zarif and Ibrahim al-Mir, both Lebanese, and a wanted Palestinian, Bahaeddine al-Sayyed, all supporters of Assir, were in the vehicle that attacked the military in Majdalyoun. Three were shot dead by soldiers manning the checkpoint Sunday.
The sources said the areas searched Thursday could have served as a base for terrorists and gunmen planning to attack the Army or civilian targets with the aim of undermining security in Sidon, particularly during the holidays.
While Sidon is predominantly Sunni, a string of mainly Christian villages stretches to the east of the city.
The security sources speculated that the Army launched the operation based on information gained from the interrogation of three Assir supporters who were arrested in the wake of Sunday’s attack.
Detainees M.A., A.S. and M.S. might have given information about the places where groups of gunmen were hiding and getting ready to carry out terrorist operations, the sources said.
The sources, who requested to remain anonymous, said the Army had information about extremist cells who were hiding in caves in the region and planned to carry out attacks on several targets, including UNIFIL troops.
The sources added that urgent security reasons prompted the operation, which is why it took place so quickly, involving the Airborne regiment, the Rapid Deployment Regiment and the Special Forces of the Army.
They added that senior officers from the Defense Ministry supervised the operation along with the Army Intelligence and the Army Command in the south.
The Army erected temporary checkpoints in the areas searched. Troops were also heavily deployed in Sidon’s streets and squares.