TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Security forces pressed forth with a major crackdown on militant leaders in the north, arresting a top militia commander and killing a man who supplied suicide bombers with explosives in dramatic weekend raid.
Tensions ran high in Lebanon’s second-largest city Sunday as the supporters of the Salafist militia leader Hussam al-Sabbagh – one of those who orchestrated clashes related to the Syrian war – took to the streets and blocked roads in Tripoli in protest of his arrest.
The Army blocked the road near the Abu Ali roundabout over fears of sniper fire from the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, where around 150 men brandished their weapons and deployed heavily inside the impoverished neighborhood that has long served as Sabbagh’s main quarters, security sources said.
“They are persecuting the Sunnis only,” one gunman told The Daily Star. “What is Sheikh Sabbagh’s fault for fighting in Iraq, Chechnya and support the mujahideen in Syria while Hezbollah’s forces are crossing the border with full military gear and authorities are facilitating it without issuing any arrest warrants against them?”
Sabbagh is considered a senior military commander of Salafists in Tripoli and his arrest is likely to spark a wave of anger within Islamist circles, according to the sources. They added that Sabbagh was immediately transferred to the military prison at the Defense Ministry in Beirut.
Sabbagh had reportedly returned to Tripoli in 2011 after fighting alongside Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, before emerging as one of the key militia leaders in the city.
In an apparent reference to Sabbagh’s detention, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi said that recent arrests in Tripoli raise questions about the fate of the security plan implemented in the northern city which he said was targeting one group only. The eventful night also witnessed the killing of terror suspect Monzer al-Hasan, accused of providing a terror cell with explosives, during an early morning raid at his apartment in the posh City Complex building in Tripoli.
Security forces believe Hasan provided explosive belts and materiel to a terrorist cell that was planning to carry out major attacks in Lebanon.
Late in June, a Saudi suicide bomber blew himself up at the capital’s Duroy Hotel during a raid by General Security personnel. A would-be suicide bomber survived the blast and is undergoing interrogation. Hasan is suspected of being the main supplier of the two Saudi bombers.
The sources said Hasan was killed during clashes with security forces at the apartment that lasted from 1 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. The 24-year-old was wearing an explosives belt and had threatened to blow himself up.
Members of the Internal Security Forces Information Branch attempted to negotiate with Hasan in a bid to convince him to surrender, even asking his aunt to take part in the negotiations. But Hasan was killed after tossing a stun grenade at security personnel that were holding him up at the apartment. Four ISF officers were lightly wounded in the exchange.
The apartment is located close to the residences of several prominent Tripoli figures like Mufti of the North and Tripoli Sheikh Malek Shaar, Future MP Ahmad Fatfat. The office of former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the home of former Prime Minister Omar Karami are also located in the area.
Residents said officers from the ISF’s information branch arrived in the building near midnight dressed in civilian clothes and quietly evacuated them, before the arrival of the Special Forces that confronted Hasan.
Residents said the officers repeatedly urged Hasan to surrender as they surrounded him, but he threatened to blow himself up and screamed incomprehensibly as jihadist songs played in the background.
At 3:30 am, the officers stormed the apartment.
Shortly after the City Complex raid, the army arrested Sabbagh, who is wanted for dozens of outstanding arrest warrants for his pivotal role in fighting this year between the Tripoli neighborhoods of majority Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh, where pro-Syrian revolution sentiments prevail and the predominately Alawite Jabal Mohsen.
The sources said the Army arrested Sabbagh at the Al-Manar checkpoint in Tripoli. An Army statement said Sabbagh along with Mohammad Ali Ismail Ismail were both arrested at the checkpoint and transferred to the concerned judiciary for interrogation.
Following the arrests, an urgent meeting was held at the residence of a top Salafist sheikh, Salem al-Rafei, to discuss “escalatory measures,” they added.
The sources feared a renewal of tensions in the northern coastal city, reminiscent of violence witnessed in the past few years before the formation of the Tammam Salam government and the implementation of a nationwide security plan.
Back in April, the Lebanese Army launched a security plan in the northern city, which resulted in the arrest of dozens of gunmen and militia commanders from both Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. The security crackdown largely brought calm to Tripoli.
At a gathering with religious leaders, Salam said the security plan would continue, adding that the Lebanese security services do not discriminate between citizens.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese Army deployed heavily Saturday along the Lebanese-Syrian border in the northern Bekaa valley region, hours after a report emerged that a major terrorist attack was thwarted.
A security source told The Daily Star that the Army deployed at 100 new points in the villages located at the foot of the anti-Lebanon mountain chain.
The Army deployed in the Baalbek villages of Al-Qaa, Ras Baalbek, Fakiha, Meqraq, Labweh, Swanieh, Nahleh, Younin, Maqneh, Bizalieh, Nabi Othman and Arsal in a bid to curb all illegal entry into Lebanese territories, namely of gunmen coming from Syria, the source explained.
The source said the crackdown by Hezbollah and Syrian troops on rebels hiding in the mountainous border regions led Lebanese security agencies to take preemptive measures as they expect an influx of gunmen into Lebanon.
A plan earlier this week by Syrian armed rebels to kidnap Lebanese soldiers in a bid to swap them with Islamists held at the Roumieh prison was foiled, security sources told As-Safir newspaper in comments published Saturday. – Additional reporting by Rakan al-Fakih