BEIRUT/TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A manhunt in pursuit of members of a seven-man ring allegedly responsible for twin car bombs in Tripoli in August intensified over the weekend, with preliminary investigations linking Syrian intelligence services and a local political party to the attacks that killed 47 people.Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr issued an arrest warrant Saturday for Youssef Diab, a suspect in the deadly Tripoli bombings whose apprehension a day earlier raised tensions in the northern city.
Saqr issued arrest warrants for three people including Diab, a judicial source told The Daily Star, adding that the arrest of the suspect by the Internal Security Forces Information Branch was approved by the state prosecutor.
The other two were identified as Anis Hamzeh and Hasan Jaafar, who were also detained.
Sources with knowledge of the ISF investigation detailed the role of Diab, who was arrested in a shop in Jabal Mohsen and transferred to Beirut.
The sources said that Diab confessed to driving a rigged car to Al-Salam Mosque in Tripoli and detonating it, whereas another member of the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, named Ahmad Merhi, drove the other car and detonated it at Al-Taqwa Mosque.
Merhi remains at large.
The sources described the alleged role of detained sheikh Ahmad al-Gharib as coordinating with Syrian intelligence, but he was not involved in carrying out the bombings.
Instead, that task was assigned to a group of seven individuals from the ADP who have experience in explosives, the sources said, adding that the group was led by a man called Hayan Haydar.
The sources said that the cars were rigged by Syrian intelligence on Syrian soil, before they were transferred to the Lebanese border near the area of Al-Qasr in the Bekaa Valley.
The car was delivered to the group of seven on Aug. 21, two days before the attack.
Hasan Jaafar moved the car near the town of Qobeiyat in the north.
The group had taken the cars to Jabal Mohsen before the bombings to ensure they were properly rigged.
On the day of the bombing, Diab drove his car to the Al-Salam Mosque and Merhi drove the other one to Al-Taqwa Mosque, according to the sources. The cars were detonated at roughly the same time while worshippers were inside the mosques.
Tensions ran high in the city Friday after the arrest of Diab who is a member of the predominantly Alawite, pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party from Jabal Mohsen over his alleged role in the bombings.
Of the three people who have been arrested in the case, one has been released for lack of evidence. The sources did not identify which suspect was released.
Head of General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim earlier Saturday inspected checkpoints set up by the agency in the northern city as part of the government’s security plan to protect Tripoli.
Ibrahim followed up on the working conditions of personnel and gave orders to his officers to remain on alert to address security concerns in the city in coordination with the other security agencies involved.
Until late Friday, intermittent sniper fire was heard in Tripoli and a rocket-propelled grenade fell near Syria Street, the road separating the mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighborhood from its rival the Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh.
The two neighborhoods have engaged in deadly clashes on several occasions since the crisis in Syria began in 2011. Jabal Mohsen maintains a strong support base for President Bashar Assad while Bab al-Tabbaneh has voiced support for the rebels.
An official from the ADP, Ali Feddah, criticized Saturday the arrest of Diab, alleging that Bab al-Tabbaneh residents fired at Jabal Mohsen minutes after the apprehension.
“The way the security agency came and arrested Diab, who is only 18, was more like a militia than a government-run force,” Feddah told a local television station, claiming ISF personnel verbally attacked Diab and beat him before apprehending him.
“In addition to that, arresting this man from Jabal Mohsen is like targeting an entire sect,” he added.
Feddah also denied that the arrested individuals belonged to the party, and said they would await the verdict of the judiciary.
A security source told The Daily Star that residents from Jabal Mohsen allegedly fired at the Army following the arrest, wounding a soldier and prompting troops to return fire.
Two people were also wounded by sniper fire in the city.
The Lebanese Army initiated contacts with Tripoli figures and politicians in order to restore calm and began patrolling the area to prevent further escalation.
The unrest came two weeks after the caretaker government launched the first phase of a security plan for Tripoli to preserve security and protect residents.
The initial phase included the deployment of Army, ISF and General Security personnel and the erecting of checkpoints at the entrance of the city and around known hot spots.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati followed up on the situation in Tripoli with caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel as well as a number of security chiefs, his office said.
Mikati also spoke to caretaker Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi about the ongoing investigation with Diab.
Officials in Tripoli sought over the weekend to limit the fallout from the investigation amid fears of reprisals against Tripoli’s Alawites.
Ministers and MPs from Tripoli held a meeting at MP Mohammad Kabbara’s home, after which they issued a statement stressing the need to let security forces conduct their work and to avoid “threatening civil peace.”
The statement called on the Army and security services to quickly arrest the suspects, while reaffirming their faith in the judicial system.
A group of sheikhs meeting inside Al-Salam Mosque Saturday called on the Lebanese government to expel the Syrian ambassador in the country and demanded the dissolution of the ADP, calling on the Army to confront the party and its leadership.
Top officials linked to the March 14 coalition called for a full investigation, saying the Alawite sect should not be held responsible for the crime.
Former ISF chief Ashraf Rifi, former Future MP Mustafa Allouch and Tripoli Mufti Sheikh Malek Shaar called after a meeting with the politburo of the Future Movement in the city for the most severe penalties against those who carried out the attack, adding that Jabal Mohsen’s citizens are part of “Tripoli’s fabric.”
“We do not discriminate between one citizen and the other on religion and sect,” said Shaar, who recently returned from a self-imposed exile for security reasons in Europe. “I want my Alawite brothers to hear my clear words ... that they are to be respected and that they are part of the fabric of this city.”
“We only have one problem and that is with those who are violating the law,” he added.
Allouch said it made sense that those who committed the crime have links to Syrian intelligence, saying the operation carried the hallmark of the institution in “the modus operandi and the reckless and indiscriminate thinking that carries no concern for humanity.”
Rifi said that only those who carried out the crime are responsible for it and stressed that Tripoli’s citizens would not carry out reprisals against innocents.