BEIRUT: Military intelligence arrested two Lebanese and three Syrians Sunday in east Lebanon on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist group, in the Lebanese Army’s latest crackdown on terror, a senior military official said.
“Sunday’s arrests are as part of the ongoing war against terrorism launched by the Lebanese Army and other security forces,” the military official told The Daily Star. “This war against terrorism will go on. Terror groups will not be allowed to destabilize the country,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam, meanwhile, reassured Gulf states during a visit to Kuwait Sunday that the security situation in Lebanon was under control despite a suicide bombing at a police checkpoint on the Beirut-Damascus highway last Friday that fueled fears of violent spillover from Syria and Iraq. A police officer was killed and 33 people were wounded in the bombing.
For his part, Speaker Nabih Berri, commenting on an alleged plot to assassinate him and carry out bombings in Lebanon, was quoted by visitors as saying he would prod the government into recruiting 3,000 members for the Army, and 1,000 members for each of General Security and the Internal Security Forces in a bid to beef up security.
“Even if this matter is costly, it will be less costly than the loss of the tourism season from which tens of thousands of Lebanese and Lebanese families make a living,” he said. “This investment in security will prompt terrorist groups and anyone who thinks of attacking Lebanon to think a thousand times before embarking on these acts,” Berri was quoted as saying.
The speaker, according to the visitors, said the source of information about alleged terrorist attacks in Lebanon was the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, as evidenced by U.S. Ambassador David Hale canceling three meetings last Friday when Lebanon went on high security alert.
Berri voiced fears the fallout of the attacks in Iraq might reflect negatively on the presidential election.
Earlier, the Army said in a statement that five men, two Lebanese and three Syrians, were arrested at the Harbta-Labweh checkpoint in the Baalbek region on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist group.
“An Army patrol, in coordination with Army Intelligence, arrested at 1 p.m. Sunday Omar Mounawer al-Satem and Ibrahim Ali al-Breidi, two Lebanese, and Syrian nationals Atallah Rashed al-Barri, Abdallah Mahmoud al-Bakkour and Jawdat Rashid Kammoun on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization,” the statement said.
It added that Satem was the cousin of Qutaiba al-Satem, who blew himself up in a suicide bombing in the southern suburb of Haret Hreik in January 2014.
The five have been handed over to the relevant authorities for interrogation, the statement said.
The state-run National News Agency said the five men were plotting “a terrorist act.”
A security source told The Daily Star that the five men from Arsal riding a minibus were arrested at a checkpoint in Harabta, as they were reportedly heading to Arsal hills to provide Syrian rebels with aid.
The arrests came two days after the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch and General Security raided two hotels in Beirut’s Hamra district, arresting 17 people suspected of planning a terrorist attack in Beirut.
Only three are being held for further interrogation while the rest have been released for lack of evidence.
Lebanese authorities had received a tip-off that a militant group was planning to assassinate Berri. Western intelligence informed Lebanese security agencies of an imminent terrorist attack against a gathering, prompting Berri to cancel a conference he was scheduled to speak at in UNESCO in Beirut, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said.The hotel raid came shortly before the suicide attack at the police checkpoint in Dahr al-Baidar.
“Investigation into the Dahr al-Baidar explosion is focusing on identifying the suicide bomber,” a judicial source told The Daily Star.
Security sources said the car bomb that exploded in Dahr al-Baidar was one of three bomb-rigged vehicles which authorities are trying to uncover.
Also, security forces are searching for a truck carrying three tons of explosives, the sources said.
ISF chief Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Basbous, who visited the family of slain ISF officer Mahmoud Jamaleddine, 49, in the village of Saadnayel to extend his condolences, said investigation into the bombing was ongoing seriously and with “complete secrecy.” He inspected officers and ISF members at the Dahr al-Baidar checkpoint, promising to reinforce it.
Salam reassured the jittery Lebanese and Gulf states, concerned about the return of car bombings, that the security situation in Lebanon was under control, describing the Dahr al-Baidar blast as a “passing” incident. He also said security forces were on high alert to maintain security and stability.
“Security forces are on high alert and security and stability in the country are prevailing on a very wide scope,” Salam told reporters on the plane that flew him to Kuwait for talks with the Gulf state’s emir and prime minister.
He said suicide bombings were hard to anticipate, adding that when the country was united on various levels – namely at the security level – the threat of suicide bombings was significantly diminished.
Later, speaking at a news conference in Kuwait, Salam was told that the United Arab Emirates, citing security concerns, warned its nationals not to stay in or travel to Lebanon.
“The security situation in Lebanon for a long time has not been stable as it is today in all Lebanese cities and areas,” Salam said. “The situation in Lebanon is stable in a healthy way.”
He urged Arab Gulf citizens to spend the summer in Lebanon, saying the Dahr al-Baidar explosion was “a passing incident.” He called on the UAE to revoke its advisory to its nationals against traveling to Lebanon.
“Lebanon has gone through bigger and more difficult situations and life did not stop in Lebanon,” he said.
Noting that security forces have constantly been uncovering “terrorist and subversive networks,” Salam said: “I can objectively say and without exaggeration that the security situation is largely under control.”