BEIRUT: A “dangerous terrorist” who was accused of preparing car bombs and killing soldiers died in a hospital Thursday after he was critically wounded in a shootout as Lebanese troops tried to arrest him in Arsal, officials said.
It was the latest development in the Lebanese Army’s crackdown on terror cells blamed for a spate of deadly car bombings and suicide attacks that rattled Lebanon in recent months, as the country was increasingly drawn into the 3-year-old conflict in Syria.
Meanwhile, a senior security source warned of the potential for a major suicide attack that could derail the upcoming presidential election in May.
The source spoke of “a qualitative terrorist operation that seeks to kill the largest number of civilians before the would-be suicide bomber blows himself up.”
“Should this attack occur, it would negatively affect the course of the presidential election,” the source told The Daily Star.
The Lebanese Army identified the wanted terror suspect as Sami Ahmad Atrash.
“As a result of investigation and follow-up, the [Army] Intelligence Directorate was able to locate the dangerous terrorist Sami Atrash in the town of Arsal at around 5 p.m. Atrash opened fire on an Army patrol as it raided his location in the town. It returned the fire [and] he died later of his wounds,” the Army said in a statement.
It added that Atrash was wanted for “preparing car bombs, firing rockets and mortar bombs on Lebanese towns and villages, holding citizens captive, participating in the killing of four civilians in Wadi Rafeq, Arsal, killing soldiers in Wadi Hmayyed, Arsal, and planning to target an [Army] officer with an explosive charge.”
A military source said Army intelligence agents were raiding hideouts in Arsal in search of a number of terror suspects linked to Atrash and wanted on the same charges.
A security source told AFP that Atrash, in his 40s, had “been hit in the stomach by several bullets and died in hospital.”
Security sources said Atrash was also accused of cooperating with armed groups fighting in Syria. In addition, he was allegedly behind several rocket attacks on towns and villages of the northern Bekaa Valley.
Radical Islamist groups, primarily the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), have claimed responsibility for car bombings and suicide and rocket attacks against predominantly Shiite areas in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley, in retaliation for Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria.
Atrash, who had several arrest warrants out against him, was also allegedly involved in last year’s deadly ambush of several Shiite men and a Turkish citizen, an incident that sparked sectarian tensions in the Bekaa Valley, the sources said, adding: “He is one of the most-wanted people on our list.”
Separately, the Army also detained three Lebanese brothers and two Syrians. The Lebanese were identified as Ali, Mohammad and Nasser Ezzedine. Security sources added that the five men had several judicial warrants against them.
Last month, the Lebanese Army arrested Palestinian Naim Abbas, a leading figure of the Al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades, and dismantled two cars rigged with explosives in Beirut and east Lebanon. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for last year’s suicide bombings outside Iran’s Embassy in Beirut.
Thirty people, including an Iranian diplomat, were killed in the Nov. 19 attack.
Abbas’ name emerged following the recent arrests of Omar Atrash, a detained Sunni sheikh who was charged over two separate bombings in January in the southern suburbs of Beirut, and Jamal Daftardar, once thought to be second-in-command of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.
Meanwhile, as the Cabinet approved a security plan to halt the violence in Tripoli Thursday, masked gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed a Lebanese Army warrant officer in the northern city. The assailants shot Fadi Ali Jbeili, 40, in the back from close range, security and Army sources said.
The officer, who was wearing his fatigues, was attacked at 6:15 a.m. while waiting at the Tripoli Boulevard to take the bus to work, the sources added. They said Jbeili was taken to the local Al-Nini hospital, where he died of his injuries.Less than an hour later, gunmen fired an AK-47 round toward police Cpl. Samer Dandashi, but missed their target, the security sources said.
Dandashi, who was wearing civilian clothes, was waiting at the side of the road in Tripoli’s Bab al-Raml neighborhood for a ride to work in Beirut. The sources said Dandashi is part of the Russian Embassy security force.
Sporadic fighting continued between gunmen in the Sunni majority Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and their rivals in the predominantly Alawite Jabal Mohsen district. A man and his son were wounded by sniper fire, security sources said.
The Cabinet ordered the Lebanese Army and security forces to seize stockpiled arms and to control the security situation in the Bekaa Valley and Tripoli as part of a plan to end the violence. Tripoli has been ravaged by ongoing rounds of fighting between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad since the uprising began in Syria in March 2011.
The decision was taken during the Cabinet’s first meeting at Baabda Palace since winning a vote of confidence in Parliament last week.
“The Cabinet decided to task the Army and security forces with implementing a plan to control the security situation, prevent the use of arms and confiscate arms caches in Tripoli,” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige said, reading the Cabinet’s statement after the session.
He added that the Tripoli security plan included the acquisition of judicial warrants for individuals wanted in relation to kidnappings, car thefts and forgery in the northern Bekaa areas. Joreige said the plan also included development projects in both the north and east of Lebanon.
The Cabinet agreed to renew an existing order to provide security agencies with telecoms data despite objections by ministers from Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, as well as reservations by ministers from the Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement.
The data includes the international mobile subscriber identity, which holds key information about a cellphone, including its location, in addition to the time of a conversation and the interlocutors involved.
At the opening of the session at Baabda Palace, President Michel Sleiman called for measures to counter attacks against the Lebanese Army in Tripoli.