Authorities look for car theft ring linked to bombings

Relatives carry the coffin of 18-year-old Maria al-Jawhari during her funeral in the town of Hermel, near the Syrian border in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa valley, on January 22, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

HERMEL, Lebanon: Lebanese authorities and Hezbollah are intensifying efforts to arrest a car theft ring that reportedly sold vehicles that were later rigged by Syrian opposition groups and detonated in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Members of the gang, with Maher Tleiss at the forefront, are being pursued in the village of Brital, southeast of Baalbek, sources told The Daily Star Wednesday.

The sources said that a rigged Kia Sportage which exploded in the Beirut southern suburb of Haret Hreik Tuesday was stolen by members of the ring in 2013 and sold to Syrian opposition militants. The explosion killed five people and wounded 46 others.

Hasan Mazloum, a local figure in Brital, told The Daily Star that he expected Tleiss and other members of the ring would not be able to remain hidden long.

“Tleiss and members of his ring will be arrested soon because they are few in number and they are well known by the security forces and parties in the region, who initially ignored their activities, though they used to rob cars and negotiate with owners to return their vehicles in exchange for money,” Mazloum said.

“However, since the start of the battles in Syria, Tleiss and his gang started selling the stolen cars to Syrian armed opposition fighters, and it turns out that these cars were being rigged and detonated in several areas where Hezbollah enjoys support,” he said. “Their arrest will take place in a matter of hours or days.”

Mazloum said that the gang’s activities were now threatening Hezbollah, which has a strong base in Baalbek and Hermel.

The sources said that the ring had sold to Syrian rebels the car that was used in a suicide bombing in Hermel last week, an attack that killed five people.

Nabil Musawi, who was already in police custody, confessed Tuesday that he was part of the ring. Musawi’s statement led to the arrest of another ring member.

On Wednesday, Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr referred Musawi to Army Intelligence for investigation in line with efforts to arrest Tleiss and other members of the gang.

A security source told The Daily Star that criminal investigation teams took photographs of the shoulders and head of the suspected Haret Hreik bomber and disseminated the images to security agencies in order to identify him.

At the explosion site in Haret Hreik, efforts were underway to remove the rubble and damaged cars.

A delegation from the Higher Relief Committee examined the scene and concluded that three apartments were no longer livable and said that housing allowances would be paid to its residents until the units were repaired.

The street will be reopened by the Haret Hreik municipality after acting State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud gives his approval.

Tuesday’s explosion, claimed by the Lebanese offshoot of the Syrian rebel group the Nusra Front, occurred just meters from the site of a car bombing earlier in the month that was claimed by the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

In the past few months a wave of bombings have struck the Beirut southern suburbs, where Hezbollah controls security. Most of the attacks were claimed by Syrian rebel groups who said they were retaliating against Hezbollah’s participation in Syria’s war alongside the Syrian regime.

Teenager Maria Jawhari, a victim of Tuesday’s explosion in Haret Hreik, was laid to rest in her hometown of Hermel Wednesday.

Hundreds of mourners, including Hezbollah MP Nawwar al-Saheli, chanted slogans against the United States and Israel during the funeral.

The funeral of Ahmad al-Obeidi, another victim, was held in the Al-Tariq al-Jadideh in Beirut.

In a related incident, Hussein Ali Nasser, 65, succumbed to his wounds suffered in the Hermel explosion last week. He died in Riyaq Public Hospital, where he was receiving treatment.

Nasser will be laid to rest on Thursday morning in Hosh al-Sayyed Ali village in Hermel. – With additional reporting by Youssef Diab

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 23, 2014, on page 2.




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