BEIRUT: The Army dismantled an explosives-rigged vehicle on the outskirts of Arsal in east Lebanon Monday, as the military finalized preparations for a Cabinet-sanctioned security plan expected to go into effect in Tripoli this week.
A rigged Honda CRV was discovered in the mountainous region of Wadi Hmayyed on the outskirts of Arsal, according to a statement issued by the Army. The military brought an explosives expert to the site and cordoned off the area around where the vehicle containing “a large quantity of explosives” was spotted.
Also in Arsal, the Army arrested three armed Syrian nationals in a car coming from Syria after their vehicle failed to stop at the behest of soldiers, prompting them to fire and shoot out a tire. A quantity of ammunitions was confiscated during the arrest, according to an Army statement.
Meanwhile, Tripoli gunmen and fighters went into hiding in anticipation of the government’s security plan, as the military prosecutor, in an unprecedented move, issued warrants against 200 suspects, including militia leaders linked to clashes between rival neighborhoods.
The Army was reticent to divulge details of the fine points of the security plan or its intended start date. “We have finalized preparations but we will not disclose the time and date of the plan’s launch,” an Army source said.
When pressed for details, he said: “We are interested in ensuring no one carries arms illegally in Lebanon.”
The government ratified the security plan during a session last week to end the sectarian fighting between rival gunmen in Tripoli and secure the porous border with Syria along the Bekaa Valley.
Judge Saqr Saqr issued warrants seeking the detention of suspects on charges related to armed clashes, car bombs, killings and attempted murder of civilians and Army soldiers, as well as kidnapping and forgery. The warrants indicate the government’s resolve to ensure the successful implementation of the security plan and grants security agencies the right to detain suspects and refer them to the judiciary.
“The most prominent suspects are the militia leaders in Tripoli, in both Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, as well as gunmen who caused the deaths of dozens of innocent people and soldiers and terrorized them,” a judicial source told The Daily Star.
Some of the suspects have already fled or gone into hiding fearing detention, the source added.
A sheikh in Bab al-Tabbaneh confirmed to The Daily Star that the neighborhood’s gunmen had gone into hiding over the weekend, expecting Army raids to confiscate weapons and arrest wanted men in the neighborhood as a part of the security plan.
“Most of the guys are in Wadi Khaled,” Sheikh Bilal al-Masri said. “They have relatives there and friends, and they are hiding out in the fields.”“We think the Army is serious this time about security,” he said, citing the upcoming presidential election as the motivation to take the security plan at face value.
Asked why the area of Wadi Khaled was believed to be a safe haven for Tripoli’s gunmen, the sheikh said: “They know the Army positions there, and can easily disappear into the woods if they detect movements.”
The sheikh said Bab al-Tabbaneh was open to the Army’s presence in the neighborhood, so long as its plan aimed to arrest fighters in Jabal Mohsen as well. He said the pursuit of those who fought alongside Syrian rebel ranks in Qalaat al-Hosn, with the Lebanese battalion Jund al-Sham, however, constituted a “red line.”
“If they want to arrest these guys, they should arrest Hezbollah members who cross the border to fight with the regime too,” he said. “We are worried that with this new security plan, they might be targeted for arrest, and if this does happen, things will escalate.”
“Now they [the suspects in Tripoli] recognize that the government will be strict in carrying out the warrants,” a security source said.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said that “there was no political cover protecting any of the gunmen,” particularly pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party leader Ali Eid, who is implicated in last summer’s twin car bombings that targeted two Tripoli mosques. Reports surfaced over the weekend that Eid had fled to Syria, but were denied by the ADP.
Ahead of the expected execution of the security plan, field commanders of Bab al-Tabbaneh held a meeting with the head of the Salafist movement in Lebanon Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal in Al-Asmar Square. Participants discussed how to respond to the fact that many neighborhood figures were listed as wanted men by the security forces.
“First, we will try to resolve this issue [of the wanted field commander] through negotiation, but they [the relevant security officials] refuse, then we are fully ready to confront them,” Shahhal said during the meeting.
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi welcomed the security plan for Tripoli, saying it was a “historic opportunity” to achieve complete security in the northern city, which has seen intermittent rounds of clashes between rival neighborhoods since the start of the Syrian uprising.
“The security plan will either be comprehensive and include Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, or it won’t be executed at all,” he said, in remarks made while checking in on the new Justice Palace in Tripoli with Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas.
Separately, Security forces confiscated 10 stolen vehicles earlier Monday after raiding a private garage and a Syrian refugee gathering in Arsal, the Internal Security Forces said. In a statement, the ISF said a police unit reclaimed six stolen four-wheel drive vehicles from a garage in Wadi Hmayyed in Arsal on March 29.
The garage belonged to late terror suspect Sami al-Atrash, a security source told The Daily Star. Atrash was wounded last week during a shootout with the Lebanese Army and later died in a hospital. The ISF also reclaimed four stolen vehicles from a Syrian refugee camp in the town.
Three of the vehicles were Syrian and entered Lebanon illegally, security sources told The Daily Star, while the fourth car was Lebanese.
The sources said there were no explosives or weapons in the cars. No individuals were detained. The vehicles were identified as a white Opel, a white Chevrolet pickup truck, a black Kia, and a silver Renault with a license plate. The investigation is ongoing under the supervision of the judiciary to verify the owners of the vehicles. – Additional reporting by Rakan al-Fakih and Antoine Amrieh