BEIRUT: Police surveillance of recently detained former Cabinet Minister Michel Samaha, including incriminating video footage, was key to unveiling the pro-Assad figure’s alleged involvement in a plot to carry out attacks in Lebanon, security sources said Friday.
“This is what Bashar wants,” security sources quoted Samaha as saying of Syrian President Bashar Assad, in a video shot by a Lebanese undercover agent for the Internal Security Forces Information Branch.
He was referring to bomb attacks meant to be carried out in north Lebanon.
They also said that, in the video, Samaha can be seen and heard saying that Syrian Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk had handed him the bombs in addition to cash to be distributed to would-be perpetrators of the attacks in Lebanon.
Samaha was detained Thursday during a raid on his house in the Metn area of Khanshara-Juwar.
When interrogators screened the video in his presence, Samaha promptly admitted to being the man on film, the sources said.
The man who shot the video, a member of the Kfouri family, was flown out of the country just before Samaha’s arrest over fears for his safety, the sources added.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said in comments to several media outlets Friday that Samaha admitted to his involvement in a “specific security case, but the issue remains undisclosed.”
Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi agreed that the probe is top secret and that "no one knows what is inside."
Nevertheless, he warned Friday that authorities will open an investigation to find out who was behind the "leaks."
Security sources Thursday told The Daily Star that Samaha admitted he was involved in the plot to carry out bomb attacks and that he had personally transferred a number of explosives from Syria to Lebanon.
The sources added that “highly effective” bombs ready to explode by remote control had earlier been found in various areas of Lebanon.
The same sources told The Daily Star Friday that after police collected evidence for the case and just before the bombs were set to explode, Acting State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud issued the order to detain Samaha.
The ISF Information Branch seized $170,000 from Samaha’s residence, added the sources.
They said security was beefed up around Hammoud's house in Moseitbeh, Beirut, following Samaha's arrest, as was his official escort.
Further information about the would-be attacks indicated that the planting and the timing of the bombs were designed to coincide with a visit to the northern region of Akkar by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai.
When asked to comment by The Daily Star, Rai declined, but Bkirki issued a statement Friday saying that the patriarch's visit to Tripoli and Akkar would last from Aug. 13 until Aug. 16.
Hammoud briefed Prime Minister Najib Mikati Friday on the outcome of the preliminary investigation of Samaha.
Mikati urged Hammoud to carry on with the probe “to uncover the truth behind this case and to achieve justice.”
Also Friday, Future Movement MP Ghazi Youssef hit back at head of the Hezbollah parliamenatary bloc Mohammad Raad, who accused members of the judiciary Thursday of collaborating with “suspicious” security forces against Samaha.
In Hezbollah’s first response to Samaha’s arrest, Raad said Thursday: “We have long experienced such security fabrications; some judges are connected to suspicious security services.”
Youssef told a local radio station Friday: “The facts of the investigation will reveal that Samaha’s arrest is not based on security fabrications.”
He also asked rhetorically why Hezbollah had not accused the ISF's Information Branch of fabricating evidence "when it arrested many Israeli spies, including those who belong to Hezbollah?”
Meanwhile, reactions were divided over the Samaha affair.
Controversial Sidon preacher Ahmad Assir said, “The ISF has offered us a precious gift in the last two days, one that makes us hold our heads high.”
Catholic religious figures expressed disapproval of the way Samaha, a fellow Catholic, was taken into custody.
Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Lahham denounced the “abusive way in which Samaha was arrested and the lack of respect for the sanctity of the home and the dignity of the family.”
In a telephone call to President Michel Sleiman at his summer residence in Beiteddine, Lahham also said the way Samaha was arrested “tarnishes the reputation of the security institution, which acted in an uncivilized manner."
Zahle’s Catholic bishop Issam Darwish also condemned the manner in which police apprehended Samaha.
“I’m not against any security measures in accordance with the norms of the Lebanese state, but I'm against the way in which [Samaha] was detained, regardless of the outcome of the ongoing probe,” Darwish said in a statement.
Others were stronger in their condemnation of the security forces' behavior.
Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, a pro-Assad general detained by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and later released, described Samaha’s detention as a “kidnapping operation.”
“The kidnapping of the 11 Lebanese in Syria was carried out by Abu Ibrahim,” he said. “Those in Lebanon are carried out by Abu Mazen [Information Branch chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan].”
Hamdan's comments came following a meeting with head of the Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun at the latter's residence in Rabieh, north of Beirut.