TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said Thursday that Lebanon faces a heightened threat of bombings from ISIS-inspired militants, warning that the jihadist group’s advances in Iraq had emboldened like-minded individuals inside the country.
“We must admit that what has happened in Iraq has caused great excitement among these groups that believe they can benefit from the Iraqi experience,” Machnouk told Reuters in an interview.
“They think they can carry out similar operations in Lebanon. But so far, in the last two months, it is clear that the security awareness has been able to obstruct this.”
But he added: “The danger of bombings is still there.”
ISIS banners were brandished by demonstrators in Tripoli Thursday as they pressed for the release of dozens of prisoners from Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison, blocking roads for a second day.
Three hunger-striking inmates from Roumieh prison were taken to hospital Thursday, as their supporters used tents, garbage bins and trucks to blockade roads at the Abu Ali roundabout and on the Maaloula-Minieh route, threatening to escalate their action if detainees held over alleged involvement in the Tripoli clashes earlier this year were not released.
Hand grenades and stun grenades were tossed in the vicinity of the Abu Ali roundabout, and shops in the area remained closed for a second day.
Despite calls on social media by residents for roads to be reopened for the sake of Muslims fasting for Ramadan, there were no attempts by the police or the Lebanese Army to interfere, leaving it to local political leaders to resolve the issue.
Security sources told The Daily Star that three inmates from Roumieh prison had been admitted to hospital early Thursday after apparently fainting because of a hunger strike they are believed to have begun four days earlier.
They were identified as Mohammad Bekdash, Bilal Baqqar and Yehya al-Saleh.
Four prisoners in Tripoli’s Qibbeh prison – identified as Tarek Berri, Khaled Naaman, Khaled Marzouq, and Bilal Naaman – announced Thursday that they too were going on hunger strike in solidarity with the Roumieh prisoners.
The unrest came a day after residents blocked several roads in north Lebanon following news that the health of a militia leader in Roumieh Prison had deteriorated.
Ziad Allouki, a former militia commander in the Tripoli neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, was transferred to Hayat Hospital after suffering from fatigue.
A crowd comprising about 500 women and young men blocked the Abu Ali roundabout to demand Allouki’s release and protests also broke out in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Qibbeh, Maaloula and the old vegetable market.
At Thursday’s protest, a group of about 30 women occupied two tents that were set up the day before in order to pressure politicians to release militia commanders and other suspects jailed in connection with the Tripoli clashes.
The majority Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the mostly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen were pitted against each other in recent years in a series of recurring clashes over their rival allegiances in the war in Syria.
The military launched a security plan on April 1 to restore law and order in the restive northern city, successfully ending the deadly clashes and leading to the arrest of dozens of armed men including militia commanders and Islamists.
But family members and supporters claim that those arrested – mainly Sunnis – had only surrendered to authorities because local leaders promised to get them out of jail in two weeks’ time, something that has so far not happened.
Calling on the residents of Tripoli to refrain from blocking roads, the National Islamic Gathering criticized what it described as an arbitrary detention campaign deliberately targeting Sunnis.
“We reject random detentions of the people of Tripoli,” Future MP Mohammad Kabbara told reporters after chairing a meeting for the gathering. “We hold the public prosecutor and the judiciary responsible for every Sunni handed over to them.”
The National Islamic Gathering is a diverse group comprising March 14 lawmakers such as Future Movement MPs Mohammad Kabbara and Khaled Daher, and independent Islamist figures such as Sheikh Kanaan Naji and Sheikh Raed Kabbara. The group also draws supporters from Bab al-Tabbaneh.
“Authorities should deal with the detainees in line with the law and take into consideration that residents carried arms to defend themselves and their homes,” Kabbara said.
“The Gathering is committed to the implementation of the security plan, which did stop the violence, and we reject all deviations from the plan – including arbitrary detention,” he added.
Sunni extremists were behind numerous suicide attacks late last year and early this year targeting areas across the country where Hezbollah enjoys broad support.