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Sabbagh supporters seek his release, warn against ‘persecuting’ Sunnis

Angry crowds protest in support of Hussam al-Sabbagh in Tripoli, Monday, July 21, 2014. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Tripoli was on edge for a second day Monday following the arrest of a top militia leader and the killing of a terror suspect linked to the firing of rockets into Israel, security sources told The Daily Star.

Tensions ran high in Tripoli following Hussam al-Sabbagh’s arrest over the weekend, with supporters charging that the security clampdown that began in spring was only targeting Sunnis.

The Muslim Scholars Committee staged a sit-in outside Al-Siddiq Mosque facing Tripoli’s Governmental Serail Monday in protest against Sabbagh’s detention and the continued imprisonment of Tripoli militia commanders without trial.

The protesters brandished banners warning politicians and security officials against the consequences of “persecuting the Sunnis,” which they said “is pushing the group into engaging in an open-ended confrontation [with security forces].”

Future MP Mohammad Kabbara called for the immediate release of Sabbagh and for settling other arrests that have taken place in Tripoli, at a meeting of prominent figures from the city.

His call came a day after Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi acknowledged what he described as the rightful demands of families of Islamist prisoners held without trial, stressing, however, that any attempt to re-ignite violence in Tripoli would not be tolerated.

Sabbagh and other militia leaders in Lebanon’s second-largest city were arrested as part of a security crackdown that started there in April with the aim of ending years of violence linked to the Syrian war.

Speaking during an iftar banquet in Tripoli Sunday, hours after security forces arrested Sabbagh, a key leader of one of the militas involved in the Syria-linked clashes, Rifi said: “There will be no stepping back and no concessions on Tripoli’s security.”

“Let it be clear to all: we will not [allow] the clock to be set back. ... Tripoli’s security comes before all else,” said Rifi, a former Internal Security Forces chief who is close to the Future Movement.

In his iftar address, Rifi stressed that the government was seeking to consolidate Tripoli’s security and stability by reinforcing the security plan with economic development projects expected to be launched soon.

Meanwhile, a man killed in a weekend raid in Tripoli who was suspected of providing explosive belts to suicide bombers in Lebanon was laid to rest in his home village in Akkar Monday.

Monzer al-Hasan was buried in the village of Bzibina in north Lebanon amid tight security measures from the Lebanese Army, after a small funeral service.

Hasan was killed in an early morning raid by the Internal Security Forces Sunday at an apartment in an upmarket district of Tripoli where he was hiding.

Security forces believe Hasan provided explosive belts and material 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 authorities arrested two men after the funeral in Beddawi, a suburb of Tripoli. The men were Ali Deeb and Tarek al-Hasan, a relative of the terror suspect.

Meanwhile, the military apprehended a man at the Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport suspected of having a role in one of the rocket attacks on Israel earlier this month, a security source told The Daily Star.

The Lebanese man, identified as Ziad Affara from Sidon, is suspected of having assisted Hussein Atwe in firing two rockets from the Khreibeh area in the Arkoub region.

The Army has arrested Atwe, who belongs to Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and confessed to firing rockets at Israel from the Hasbaya village of Mari earlier this month.

Atwe has reportedly said that his move was in retaliation for Israel’s aggression on Gaza.

Militants have launched salvoes of rockets from Lebanese territory toward Israel on several occasions following the start of Israel’s aggression on Gaza last week, prompting Israeli retaliatory shelling of Lebanese villages.

The Army has also arrested two Palestinians for transporting rockets to the launch site on July 13 and 14.

The incidents have raised tensions along the Lebanese-Israeli border, which has been relatively calm since the 2006 war with Israel.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon’s eastern mountains on the border with Syria, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime continued firing artillery and rockets at suspected rebel locations in the area, security sources told The Daily Star.

The light barrages persisted throughout the day, amid a decline in Syrian regime airstrikes over the last few days, the sources said.

The Lebanese Army also intensified security measures in the region, reinforcing positions it had taken over the weekend and deploying to new ones as a counter-measure to possible infiltration by rebels through the porous border.

The Army deployed in villages in the northeast over the weekend after security forces reportedly foiled a major terrorist attack in the country.

In another security development, the ISF freed a Syrian national who had been kidnapped by a gang in Wadi Khaled, and arrested the group’s leader.

Mohammad Shatat, who owns a chocolate factory, was tricked into going to a meeting Thursday in Wadi Khaled by kidnappers posing as businessmen. He was then kidnapped using a rented car and was “shot and tortured,” the ISF said.

The Lebanese head of the gang, identified as A.K., 28, confessed to kidnapping Shatat and asking his family to pay a ransom in cash. He revealed the names of his partners in the crime, who are still on the run, according to the statement. – Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari and Rakan al-Fakih

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 22, 2014, on page 3.

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