ZAHLE/BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army conducted raids in the northeastern Bekaa Valley village of Brital Friday in search of a 9-year-old schoolboy who was taken by gunmen earlier that day in Zahle, a security source told The Daily Star.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said the raids came in light of information that some residents of Brital, home to many wanted individuals, could be involved in the kidnapping of Michel Saqr.
Angered by the kidnapping, relatives of Saqr and Zahle residents blocked all roads leading to the Bekaa Valley town, saying they would only reopen them when the child was released.
Saqr was kidnapped around 7 a.m. while on his way to the Sainte Famille School in Zahle, the source said. He was abducted by four masked gunmen from the car that was taking him to school along with his two sisters.
The source said the assailants pulled up in a Grand Cherokee and a Honda, stopped Saqr’s vehicle and some pulled the driver out and beat him while others grabbed the boy and sped off.
The Honda used in the kidnapping was left behind at the site. The source said the vehicle was stolen from the Beirut district of Sin al-Fil earlier this week.
Saqr’s father, Ibrahim, owns a gas company and several gas stations. He also runs an advertising firm in the Bekaa Valley.
A candidate for Parliament during previous election rounds, the prominent businessman maintains close ties with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.
He erected a number of billboards across Lebanon last month praising the LF leader for his decision not to join the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam.
“We can’t make random accusations, the Lebanese Army is carrying out raids right now to free the child,” said Youssef Saqr, Ibrahim’s cousin.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Saqr said it was well-known that groups from some villages in the northern Bekaa Valley, such as Brital, were involved in previous kidnappings. “All that we want is to get the child back safe and sound.”
Saqr added that Michel’s parents did not want to speak to the media.
The Internal Security Forces said in a statement that it was coordinating efforts with the Lebanese Army to free Saqr and arrest the perpetrators.
The ISF said it had identified all those involved in kidnappings in Lebanon since March 2011, when seven Estonian tourists were abducted in the Bekaa Valley.
“They are around 100 people of interest, all identified. It [the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces] is working on arresting them and bringing them to the relevant courts in a bid to put an end to this criminal phenomenon,” it said.
Salam had followed up on the case and contacted Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Samir Moqbel, as well as Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who informed him of the incident, his office said.
Salam also gave all security bodies instructions to remain vigilant and bring the perpetrators to justice.
The prime minister contacted Hezbollah and Amal Movement leaders, influential in the Bekaa Valley, asking them to help the security agencies in their efforts.
For his part, Machnouk contacted Saqr’s father and assured him that the security bodies were on high alert and taking all necessary measures to free his son, according to the National News Agency.
“It is necessary to combat [lawlessness in areas] that specialize in kidnapping, murder, forgery, theft and drugs,” Machnouk said in a statement. He called on all political factions to act decisively in order to achieve this goal. Machnouk also received a phone call from Geagea concerning the matter.
Lebanon has seen a spate of kidnap-for-ransom operations over the past years, particularly in Zahle and other areas of the Bekaa Valley.
Many of those kidnapped have reportedly been moved to the Hay al-Sharawneh neighborhood of Baalbek, which is inhabited mostly by members of the Shiite Jaafar clan, before being released in return for a ransom.
Stolen cars across Lebanon are believed to be sent to Brital, where they are then sold. Some residents are also known to forge documents.
The municipality and mukhtars of Brital condemned the kidnapping of Saqr as a “crime against childhood and humanity.”
They said in a statement that they stood against all acts of abduction, expressing their solidarity with Saqr’s family.
A statement by Zahle’s officials and priests who gathered at the Melkite Greek Catholic archdiocese in the town said the kidnapping portrayed Zahle as susceptible to the control of gangs, but it was actually under the influence of strong men.
“We strongly call for his immediate release and for his return to his family and town safe and sound,” the statement said.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai discussed the issue with Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi over the telephone, highlighting the danger of rampant abductions and blackmail operations in Lebanon.
He said it was necessary that all Lebanese felt secure, stressing the need to put an end to these “criminal actions that are alien to our society and traditions.”
The March 14 coalition and a number of parliamentarians slammed Saqr’s abduction.
Zahle MP Shant Janjanian, from the LF bloc, said the people of Zahle were fed up and could no longer trust the security bodies to bring criminals to justice.
He said Zahle residents would pursue the “gangs” that were perpetrating such acts.
Baalbek-Hermel MP Ghazi Zeaiter, of Speaker Nabih Berri’s bloc, also condemned the kidnapping.