SIDON/TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Lebanon’s security forces ramped up precautionary measures and deployed heavily across the country Monday, fearing that the repercussions of days of clashes in Arsal would compromise security in other regions.
A security source told The Daily Star that forces were boosting their preparedness in anticipation of a possible terrorist attack.
So far 14 soldiers have been killed and 86 wounded in three days of fierce fighting between the Army and militants in Arsal, after the latter overran several checkpoints, a military center and a police station over the weekend.
In Sidon, the Army erected checkpoints and dispatched patrols across the city, fearing repercussions of the Arsal clashes. The security measures in Lebanon’s southern city focused on areas where residents are likely to sympathize with the Islamist militants battling the Lebanese Armed Forces in Lebanon’s border town.
The Army employed extraordinary measures around Palestinian refugee camps such as Ain al-Hilweh and Mieh Mieh, and areas hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees, particularly the Imam Ouzai Center north of Sidon, Markaz al-Iman in Abra and Al-Alaili center in Shakriyya, and other areas housing about 150 Syrian families. Fixed checkpoints were set up in the Sidon suburbs of Abra, Majdalyoun and Sharhabeel.
The Army also focused on areas home to numerous supporters of Salafist fugitive Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who is wanted for orchestrating last year’s Abra clashes that resulted in the deaths of several Lebanese Army soldiers. This included two apartments owned by Assir near the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Abra, as well as an apartment owned by one of his accomplices, the notorious singer-turned-Salafist militant Fadel Shaker, who is also still at large.
Despite allegations that Ain al-Hilweh’s Islamist movements were preparing for attacks against security forces, factions inside the refugee camp – Lebanon’s largest – told The Daily Star there had been an agreement to maintain the overall calmness in the camps so as to avoid anything similar to what is happening in Arsal.
A statement released by one of the camp’s factions reassured residents “there is no military presence and no appearance of any [foreign] Islamist party,” urging Ain al-Hilweh residents not “to post false rumors that may terrorize innocent women and children.”
“The situation in Ain al-Hilweh is more than normal and there is no reason to fear anything,” said the statement from the Youth of the Tamir neighborhood.
The Lebanese military also deployed heavily in the northern city of Tripoli Monday after a protest kicked off against the Army’s operation in Arsal.
The demonstration, led by the Committee of Muslim Scholars, began at the Harba area in the Sunni-majority neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and was supposed to conclude at the highway that connects Tripoli to Akkar. Carrying black flags with ISIS’ logo, the protesters demanded the Army end its military operation in Arsal and open a humanitarian corridor to the northeastern town.
The military deployed in the neighborhood and prevented the protesters from reaching their destination. Angered, protesters fired shots at soldiers, who responded with tear gas to disperse the crowd.
The Army’s mass deployment closed off both Bab al-Tabbaneh’s southern entrance at the Abu Ali roundabout and its northern access point at the Maloula roundabout.
The heavy deployment also targeted the heart of Bab al-Tabbaneh near the Harba mosque, where soldiers, backed by armored vehicles, launched raids in search of the gunmen and reinforced its posts in the city, which has witnessed multiple rounds of clashes since 2012.
The Army also dispatched armored vehicles and erected checkpoints near Abdel-Hamid Karami Square, better known as Al-Nour Square, at the southern entrance to the city. The walls of Tripoli’s Serail were piled with sand bags as the Army put up checkpoints nearby.
Security measures were also put in place in Tripoli’s old souk, with armored vehicles conducting patrols and checkpoints monitoring the market’s entrances.
Residents in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, have repeatedly accused the Army of discriminating against Sunnis and enabling Hezbollah’s role in Syria.