BEIRUT: Interior Minister Marwan Charbel denied Tuesday that Al-Qaeda had a base in Lebanon, disputing remarks by Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn who maintained that members of the organization were entering the country under the guise of Syrian opposition activists.
The conflicting statements by the two ministers reflected the state of disarray within the six-month-old government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati as Lebanon is reeling under the reverberations of the nine-month turmoil in Syria.
However, Charbel, in interviews with local television stations, acknowledged that there are supporters of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon.
“We have nothing called Al-Qaeda. We have people who support this organization,” Charbel told LBCI TV.
In another interview with NBN TV, Charbel said: “Al-Qaeda with its equipment and arms does not exist in Lebanon. There are people who support this [Al-Qaeda’s] ideology.” He said there were probably some Al-Qaeda members in Iraq fighting against the U.S. occupation who later headed for Lebanon.
“But this does not indicate the presence of an organization that wants to use Lebanon as a base to carry out terrorist operations,” Charbel said.
He said the alleged presence of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon was blown out of proportion, adding that Ghosn’s information on this subject is being examined by the Lebanese Army. Charbel spoke of high-level security coordination between Lebanese and Syrian security apparatuses to prevent infiltration from the two countries’ borders.
Meanwhile, the parliamentary Future bloc of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a delegation from the municipality of the Bekaa town of Arsal denied Ghosn’s claims on the presence of Al-Qaeda members in their town.
Charbel’s remarks came a day after Ghosn stood firm on his earlier statement that Al-Qaeda members were entering Lebanon under the cover of Syrian opposition figures, rejecting March 14 criticism that his comments aimed to serve the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. Ghosn insisted that his information was not based on speculation or analysis.
The defense minister’s claims came a few days before twin suicide bomb attacks struck security services buildings in Damascus, killing more than 44 people. Syrian authorities blamed Al-Qaeda for the bombings.
Charbel said the Lebanese Army was investigating Ghosn’s claims that Al-Qaeda members had infiltrated Arsal near the border with Syria. In an interview with the Voice of Lebanon radio station, Charbel said Ghosn’s remarks should be brought up as a priority during Wednesday’s Cabinet session. He said Ghosn will brief the Cabinet on his information about the alleged presence of Al-Qaeda in Arsal.
Charbel also said the security situation is stable in Lebanon while security agencies were put in a state of alert to maintain law and order during theTURN TO PAGE 10FROM PAGE 1New Year holiday. Charbel spoke after chairing a meeting of the Central Security Council.
President Michel Sleiman said the Lebanese people, who support the Lebanese Army in the fight against terrorism, will not allow terror groups – a clear allusion to Al-Qaeda – to take shelter in their towns and villages. Sleiman spoke during a meeting with the country’s top military and security commanders, including Ghosn and Charbel, at Baabda Palace.
“The national, basic and sacred duty is to defend the country against Israeli attacks. Confronting and fighting terrorism is one of the missions which is no less important than the duty of defense. It is an integrated mission and is given priority by the Lebanese Army which paid a heavy price in confronting terrorism in 2007,” Sleiman said. He was referring to the fierce battles the Army fought against gunmen of Al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared near Tripoli.
“The Lebanese people, who stood supporting the Army in its battle against terrorism, will not allow under any circumstances [terror] cells to hide in neighborhoods, towns and villages under various slogans that run contrary with Lebanon’s culture, democracy and common coexistence,” Sleiman added.
A delegation from Arsal’s municipality met Mikati and denied the presence of Al-Qaeda members in their town. The delegation, led by the town’s mayor Ali Hujeiri, demanded the Army deploy on the Lebanese-Syrian border and in the town and arrest any Al-Qaeda members if found.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting at the Grand Serail, Hujeiri rejected Ghosn’s statement on the presence of Al-Qaeda in Arsal.
“We confirmed to [Mikati] that there are two matters which we will not accept at all. The first is collaboration with Israel, and the second the presence of fundamentalist organizations, including Al-Qaeda organization,” Hujeiri said. He added that instead of accusing Arsal of harboring Al-Qaeda members, the government should work to assert state authority in the town and aid development efforts.
He called for judicial investigation into the allegations that Al-Qaeda members infiltrated into Arsal.
“We demand that the Army deploy on the border to protect us. If there is a presence of Al-Qaeda, let [the Army] arrest them,” Hujeiri said. He added that Mikati showed understanding toward the delegation’s demands. Hujeiri said the delegation will visit Army Commander General Jean Kahwagi Thursday to ask him to deploy the Army in Arsal. A delegation of March 14 politicians is planning to visit Arsal in a show of solidarity, according to the Central News Agency.
Meanwhile, Hariri’s Future bloc rejected Ghosn’s remarks on the presence of Al-Qaeda members in Arsal as “dangerous and suspicious.”
“The bloc warns the government and the defense minister in particular that issuing these surprising accusations that are not based on proof and evidence constituted a dangerous precedent,” the bloc said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting.
Last week, Ghosn said arms were being smuggled and “some terrorist members of Al-Qaeda” entered Lebanon through illegal crossings on the Lebanese-Syrian border, particularly Arsal, under the guise of Syrian opposition members.