MAAMELTEIN, Lebanon: The late summer sun rising over the mountains diffuses the last trace of early morning mist. The valley below is leafy, cool and still, enough to relax even the most highly strung of dawn commuters.
Not Admiral Nazi Baroudi. He has a situation on his hands.
“Terrorist groups have resorted to exploiting the chaos in Lebanese prisons in order to exert pressure on the government,” he warns. “These terrorist groups captured a tourist ship with tourists on board in Beirut Port, blocked the international road and positioned themselves in fighting positions west of [Maameltein] bridge.”
Even before Baroudi can finish his assessment, gunfire erupts in the basin, cracks of ammunition breaking the quiet and reverberating up to the Admiral’s vantage point. Lebanese Navy seals sweep in from across the bay, land on a thin strip of sandy scrub land and stream into the valley, guns and flares blazing.
Two heavy ships make a beeline to the shore and disgorge themselves of several armored personnel carriers and a T-55 tank, a UH1 helicopter circling all the while overhead.
Baroudi is now sitting, watching the unfolding maelstrom calmly through military binoculars. If the head of the Lebanese Navy appears excessively calm over the potentially disastrous hostage situation, he’s in good company. It’s only a drill, after all.
It’s Wednesday morning and as representatives of the Lebanese Armed Forces land, maritime and aerial units are joined by officials from foreign troop contingents and a handful of military attaches to observe one of the most intricate war games ever undertaken in Lebanon.
Baroudi explains: “The aim of this exercise is for leaders to become experienced in organizing joint operations as well as for unit commanders from various army units – including commanders of navy ships, air and land forces in the Lebanese Army.”
The clutch of observers watches on from a plateau downhill from the concrete and glass lozenge that is Casino de Liban. Before them, they see several smaller speed boats approach the Aphrodite, the ship upon which the hostages are being “held.” The heads of naval divers bob above the now choppy water. As the second wave of infantry broaches the shore, two black Gazelle helicopters swoop overhead.
Although the ammunition is simulated, the spectacle is nonetheless arresting. As the aircraft complete their flyby, several huge explosions shake the earth below, plumes of flame rising into the sky a split-second or two before the booming sound wave thumps the rows of observers.
Skirmishes continue for several minutes with a Red Cross ambulance picking its way through ongoing heavy artillery fire to tend to those who may have been wounded in the situation, were it real. Eventually, hostages presumably secured, the commandos hustle back aboard their crafts and race off toward the horizon, sniper fire from the roofs of nearby apartment blocks covering their retreat.
As the crowd of military men files out of their viewing platform, Lieutenant Colonel Giles Taylor, the United Kingdom’s military attaché in Lebanon, assesses the joint exercise.
“It shows the ability of the Lebanese Armed Forces to be able to project force anywhere in the country and to be able to confidently guarantee stability in the country,” he says. “Don’t underestimate what you have seen here. It is a thorough grasp of a complex operation.
“Running throughout this is the ability to control a very complex maneuver in a very competent way,” Taylor adds.
“That gives us great faith in the Lebanese Armed Forces and their ability to conduct operations, and shows an increased capacity year on year.”