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Tripoli security situation critical
The tense neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, and the rest of Tripoli, will be high on the meeting's agenda. (The Daily Star / Antoine Amrieh)
The tense neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, and the rest of Tripoli, will be high on the meeting's agenda. (The Daily Star / Antoine Amrieh)
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BEIRUT: The Higher Defense Council, chaired by President Michel Sleiman, will convene Wednesday to address the worrying security situation in Tripoli and Sidon and a rash of kidnappings throughout the country.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi will also attend the session, along with the heads of security and judicial bodies and the defense, interior, finance and information ministers.

Sources familiar with the issue said the decision to convene the council was taken after top officials received reports indicating the need for strict, new measures to confront the security situation in Tripoli, which was described as being on the verge of an explosion.

Earlier in the day, Youth and Sports Minister Faisal Karami, speaking to reporters at Rafik Hariri Airport before leaving on a visit to Saudi Arabia, commented that residents of his hometown of Tripoli were engaged in a waiting game for “round 15.”

He was referring to more than a dozen rounds of violence that have plagued Tripoli since 2008, when clashes broke out between the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.

“Every day there are hand grenades being thrown, and gunfire from passing cars, frightening people. Everyone in Tripoli is saying that round 15 is very near,” Karami said.

The sources said that a report by Army Intelligence pointed to an individual identified by his initials, J. J., as being responsible for throwing hand grenades in the city. J.J. was acting under the direction of a man nicknamed Abu Mansour who heads an armed group in Tripoli, the report said.

When a patrol from Army Intelligence cornered J.J., he took refuge in the office of a retired army general. During a two-hour standoff, army personnel asked the retired officer to hand over the suspect, but the demand was rejected.

The patrol withdrew and the man left the office, escorted by armed men in a white Range Rover.

The report pointed to the possibility that clashes might once again break out in Tripoli at the end of this week, the sources said.

Talking to The Daily Star, residents of Tripoli described the situation as frightening, highlighting their feeling that state authority in the city appeared to be absent.

Incidents such as the appearance of gunmen in the streets and road closures by armed men have become a regular occurrence. “Every time a person is detained, gunmen block roads until the person is released,” one resident said.

Other sources in Tripoli said that an informal neighborhood watch group detained a young man late Monday in the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

The sources said the residents believed the youth was responsible for tossing hand grenades under the cover of darkness to spread fear in Tripoli, and handed him over to the authorities.

The Higher Defense Council will also discuss the spreading phenomenon of kidnapping for ransom, especially after media reports indicated that the authorities are aware of the identities and addresses of the people behind them.

The latest kidnapping incident was brought to a successful close Monday when a 12-year-old Beirut youth was returned to his family after a ransom of $250,000 was paid.

The council will also take up the security situation in Sidon, where a local sheikh, Ahmad Assir, and his followers last week took to the streets bearing arms and issued threats that they would confront Hezbollah-related groups in the city.

A session of the Cabinet is also scheduled to hold its weekly meeting Wednesday, and is expected to address the alarming security situation in the country. – Additional reporting by Antoine Amrieh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 27, 2013, on page 3.
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