HERMEL/TRIPOLI/SIDON, Lebanon: The Lebanese military arrested late Wednesday a senior Syrian operative based in Arsal who heads a network responsible for rigging car bombs and sending them into Lebanon, a security source told The Daily Star.
Mohammad Qassem and seven of his aides, all of them Syrians, were captured in a “special operation” carried out by the Army, the source said, adding that computers, mobile phones and “important documents” were seized in the operation.
The source disclosed that the eight men, who were arrested in one of Arsal’s refugee camps, are suspected of belonging to Al-Qaeda.
The arrests came as Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi pledged to continue “fighting terrorism and dismantling takfiri networks” on the eve of a major security crackdown in the north aimed at ending months of Syria-linked violence.
“We promised a year ago ... to work on preventing Lebanon from becoming a battlefield for terrorists,” Kahwagi said at a security conference in Beirut. “Today we are fulfilling that promise.”
He said that Lebanon needed international assistance to deal with the fallout from the war in Syria and the escalating refugee crisis.
Kahwagi said the Army would continue combating terrorism despite the “major sacrifices of our officers and soldiers.”
The Army has been the target of sporadic attacks and suicide bombings in recent months.
The latest attack occurred Tuesday night in the northern Akkar region of Qammoua. Lt. Joe Farfour, 22, and Sgt. Fawzi Abed Ali, 32, were killed and another wounded in what the military called an “ambush” in the area.
But the Army announced Wednesday the arrest of one suspect in the attack and said another was found dead.
“After a series of raids, the Lebanese Army managed to arrest Baraa al-Kik, one of the [suspects] involved in the attack, while Ali Taleb, who opened fire on the Army, was found dead after committing suicide,” the military said in a statement.
Farfour was buried after a funeral service in the town of Halba, which was attended by a large number of officers. The assault came hours after a Salafist preacher warned of major fallout in response to the Lebanese Army’s security measures in Tripoli.
Kahwagi’s rhetoric coincided with the launch of the initial phase of a wide-ranging security plan in the Bekaa Valley.
The opening gambit of the Bekaa security plan, which was announced last week, has already seen an expansion of the security presence around the embattled northern town of Arsal to about 2,000 Army and ISF officers and the setting up of sand barriers at illegal crossing areas on the border with Syria.
Hezbollah also handed over control of checkpoints in the north, on the highway linking Baalbek and Hermel, as part of the new strategy.
The next step in the security plan will include a series of raids by security forces in towns and neighborhoods harboring individuals wanted by the authorities.
The Army launched a security plan last week to bring peace to restive Tripoli after 20 rounds of fighting linked to the war in Syria. The government decided to expand the plan to cover the Bekaa Valley.
Residents hope the new security measures will help alleviate tensions in the region, worsened by violence, kidnappings and sectarianism. The checkpoints operated by Hezbollah were a particular irritant to residents opposed to the party, with a checkpoint positioned in the town of Labweh on the only thoroughfare leading to the Sunni-majority Arsal.
Hezbollah’s checkpoints were installed following a spate of car bombings and attacks on areas associated with Hezbollah in north Lebanon and the southern suburbs, some of which were suspected of originating in Arsal.
The coming raids are expected to target areas harboring criminal networks involved in the drug trade, car thefts, murders and kidnappings, likely in the villages of Brital and Dar al-Washa as well as the Charawneh neighborhood in Baalbek.
Ahmad al-Fulaiti, Arsal’s deputy head of municipality, told The Daily Star Hezbollah members were no longer checking identification papers of drivers traveling from Arsal.
Ramez Amhaz, the head of Labweh’s municipality, confirmed that Hezbollah no longer maintained an armed presence on the road between Labweh and Arsal and said raids against wanted individuals would be carried out in the next two days.
But news of the imminent crackdown has led several wanted individuals in the area to flee to the mountain ranges of the northern Bekaa Valley and to Syria.
Meanwhile, the security plan continued unabated in Tripoli despite sporadic violence against the military.
The Army detained four people and discovered a large quantity of weapons after raiding a warehouse.
In a separate announcement, the Army said it arrested a man identified as R.A. in Al-Berraniyeh neighborhood suspected of shooting at a military unit, as well as two other suspects wanted for carrying out “sectarian attacks.”
The Army also said that one of its APCs was damaged in the neighborhood of Zahriyyeh.
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi said in a television interview that the security plan was a “golden opportunity” for Tripoli to emerge from the violence, adding that the chances of the plan’s success were “very high.”
Rifi put the total death toll of the Syria-linked clashes in the city at 208.
But in south Lebanon, Palestinian factions struggled to maintain security in the refugee camps after the attempted assassination of a local Islamist preacher. Sheikh Arsan Sleiman was shot as he was leaving a memorial service for Tarek Safadi, an aid worker who died in the crossfire during clashes at the Mieh Mieh camp on the outskirts of Sidon Monday. The memorial was being held at the nearby Ain al-Hilweh, the largest refugee camp in Lebanon.
Medical sources told The Daily Star that Sheikh Sleiman was in critical condition after a bullet entered his skull through his eye.
Sleiman heads a charity linked to Al-Ahbash, an Islamist group that was active during Syria’s tutelage in Lebanon.
Monday’s clashes broke out when members of Ansar Allah, a Palestinian group with links to Hezbollah, shot and killed former Fatah commander Ahmad Rashid Adwan.
Adwan was buried Wednesday in a procession that was preceded by chants directed against Hezbollah and Iran.