BEIRUT/SIDON: Lebanon’s Army chief signaled the military’s intention to uphold stability and intensify its counterterrorism operations as the police launched a fresh crackdown on stolen cars to prevent them from being used in bombing operations.
Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi said Friday the military would remain the guarantor of Lebanon’s stability in the face of security challenges and political uncertainty.
“Lebanon is going through a delicate stage of its history for we still lack a government and the fears over the presidential election are growing and in light of the security challenges the Army will remain the nation’s security net,” Kahwagi said in an address to officers. “Our situation is excellent, and nothing frightens us, we are the strongest on the ground.”
“The Army draws its strength from its legitimacy and will not give up on its right to ensure stability and prevent self-security [by some] and we stress our firm decision to prevent strife in Lebanon and we will not let [Tripoli or any other] region fall to the mercy of [chaos],” he said.
Kahwagi said the Army had devoted the past months to counter-terrorism and stressed that the military was stepping up these efforts in order to “apprehend these [terror] cells and tighten the noose around all suspect groups.”
He stressed that the Army only took action against parties targeting citizens and the military.
“The Army does not fight anyone because of their beliefs but because of aggression against citizens and soldiers,” Kahwagi said, adding that the Lebanese rejected “the terrorist and suicide missions” witnessed in recent months.
A wave of deadly bombings in Lebanon claimed by Al-Qaeda-linked groups has highlighted the growing impact of the Syria conflict on its neighbor. The attacks have targeted Lebanese regions that strongly back Hezbollah, which is actively engaged in the war between the Damascus regime and rebels in Syria.
In his address, Kahwaji referred to Omar al-Atrash, a Sunni sheikh charged with involvement in two suicide bombings in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
He said Atrash was complicit in transporting suicide bombers, explosives-laden cars and rockets.
Kahwagi also denounced campaigns targeting the Army, saying the military enjoyed the backing of many states.
“There is a contrast in that as some target the Army, there is prominent international and Arab backing and will to strengthen [the military] and this out of conviction in the military establishment’s role,” he said.
Kahwagi also said the upcoming constitutional deadlines meant the military had a great responsibility, while warning against the military intervening in politics.
“Your sole reference is the Army Command: your sole allegiance to the Army,” he said, adding that “more transparency is needed as well as the culture of eradicating corruption.”
Kahwaji’s address came as Lebanese police launched a countrywide operation targeting stolen vehicles in an effort to prevent further terrorist attacks.
Security sources told The Daily Star Friday the clampdown in major cities across Lebanon – particularly the capital Beirut, Halba and Tripoli in the north, Zahle and Baalbek in the east and Sidon and Nabatiyeh in the south – went into effect Thursday.
They said random checkpoints were being set up to check for proper identification.
In Beirut, the hasty roadblocks are backed by bomb-sniffing dogs, the sources added.
Stolen vehicles have been used in a spate of bombing attacks in Lebanon, mainly targeting the pro-Hezbollah southern suburbs of Beirut and the northeastern town of Hermel.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel revealed following the Feb. 2 car bombing in Hermel that 400 car thefts were reported over the past six months.
The sources said the crackdown was in line with an undisclosed decision taken by the Internal Security Forces’ command.
Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds wounded in 14 car bomb attacks since May 2013, most of them linked to the crisis in Syria.
Al-Qaeda-linked groups have claimed responsibility for the bombings, citing Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad.
The tense security situation was evident in Sidon Friday where explosives experts were summoned to two locations in bustling neighborhoods of the city to examine suspicious cars, only to discover that they were false alarms.
In the Sit Nafisa neighborhood, resident Mohammad Naanaa called the local police after finding his black Hyundai, stolen in December, parked at the same spot from where it was taken.
Naanaa told police he suspected it was laden with explosives.
Army and police officers cordoned off the car and declared it free of explosives after being examined by bomb experts.
Residents near the city’s Zaatari Mosque reported an object wrapped with adhesive tape and placed in the central reservation of Riad al-Solh Street. Security officers who were deployed in the vicinity of the mosque during Friday prayers cordoned off the area.
A subsequent investigation by explosives experts determined that the object consisted of three pieces of stone and a battery wrapped with tape, and contained no explosive material. – Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari