BEIRUT: Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh upheld Monday Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn’s claims that Al-Qaeda was present in Lebanon, dismissing denials by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel.
The Zghorta MP added that both President Michel Sleiman as well as Mikati had reports about Al-Qaeda activity in Lebanon.
“Both the president and the prime minister are aware of this [Ghosn’s] information and they know that it is serious information,” he said, adding that he and the defense minister had been told to cover it up and “not to make a big issue of it in order not to threaten the country’s economic interests.”
“The president is working for the country’s best interests and I hope he will solve the problem behind the scenes and not through the media,” Franjieh said.
In the meantime, Charbel called on Lebanon’s feuding parties to reach an understanding to cope with the repercussions of the nine-month turmoil in Syria whether it leads to regime change or not.
Franjieh held a news conference to defend Ghosn in the face of scathing verbal attacks by the opposition March 14 politicians, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who scoffed at the defense minister’s allegations that Al-Qaeda militants were entering the Bekaa town of Arsal near the border with Syria.
“It is true that Al-Qaeda is present in Lebanon and it is true that there is terrorism in Lebanon,” Franjieh told reporters at his residence in Bneshaai, Zghorta, north Lebanon.
He said Ghosn’s remarks on the presence of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon were based on security, military and intelligence reports by the Army. He called on Ghosn and Army commander General Jean Kahwagi to reveal the information they have on the alleged presence of Al-Qaeda members in Lebanon.
Franjieh said Ghosn, a member of the Marada Movement, was facing a violent campaign. He added that the attacks on Ghosn were in fact targeting the Lebanese Army.
He added that while Ghosn was sworn to confidentiality concerning the information he had on Al-Qaeda, he himself was not. “There is dereliction by the Lebanese state on this matter,” Franjieh said.
“The defense minister has briefed the Cabinet on all matters. He said there are some terrorists who are infiltrating across the Syrian-Lebanese border and entering [Lebanon] on the grounds that they are Syrian opposition. They are coming from Iraq, transiting [through] Syria and entering Lebanon. This issue is for the state to shoulder its responsibility and the Cabinet has fully adopted [Ghosn’s] remarks,” Franjieh said.
“This atmosphere is based on security reports and information. The target behind the campaigns is not the defense minister, but the Lebanese Army through the defense minister,” Franjieh said. “The defense minister based [his information] on reports given to him from the military establishment, the Lebanese Army’s intelligence apparatus in his capacity as the official political spokesperson of the military establishment and the Lebanese Army.”
“It is not my duty to deal with the Al-Qaeda problem. The government is responsible for that,” he said, adding that the reason for defending Ghosn was because he was a Marada member.
Last month, Ghosn stood firm on his statement that Al-Qaeda members were entering Lebanon under the guise of Syrian opposition activists, rejecting March 14 criticism that his remarks were meant to serve the Assad regime.
Last week, a few days after Ghosn’s statement, twin suicide car bomb attacks struck security services buildings in Damascus, killing 44 people and wounding more than 100. Syria has blamed Al-Qaeda for the attack.
Ghosn’s statement has thrown the Mikati government, already riven by sharp differences over many key issues, into chaos after both Mikati and Charbel rejected the allegations of the presence of Al-Qaeda militants in Lebanon. Ghosn’s remarks have since come under fire by March 14 politicians who have accused him of seeking to serve the Assad regime which is facing a serious challenge from a popular revolt. Damascus has repeatedly claimed arms have been smuggled into Syria from Lebanon to inflame the protests against the regime.But Charbel again denied Friday that Al-Qaeda members were operating in Lebanon. He insisted that Al-Qaeda organization does not exist in Lebanon, saying that “Lebanon could be a transit point for Al-Qaeda but not a sanctuary.”
In an interview with Tele Liban Monday, Charbel called for understanding among the Lebanese to cope with the repercussions of the unrest in Syria. He stressed “the need to tackle the problem that will face us as a result of what is happening in Syria whether the regime is changed or not.” “Under all circumstances, there will be a problem in Lebanon. A solution is in the hands of the Lebanese themselves through understanding on what is happening in Syria,” he said.
Franjieh, a staunch supporter of Assad, slammed Hariri for backing the establishment of a buffer zone on the border with Syria, saying such a move was aimed as a “blow” against Syria. “We also have information that the Americans want a buffer zone in Lebanon against Syria. This is not in Lebanon’s best interests,” he said. Franjieh added that 70 percent of Syrians supported Assad. “We are with this Syrian regime [but] we will not do anything at the expense of Lebanon,” he said.
Meanwhile, a large Lebanese Forces delegation headed by Zahle MPs visited Arsal Monday in a show of solidarity, rejecting allegations that the town harbored Al-Qaeda militants. They also rejected Franjieh’s defense of Ghosn’s claims on the presence of Al-Qaeda in Arsal. The delegation visited Arsal’s municipality where they were welcomed by its head Ali Hujairi.
Addressing the delegation, Hujairi said: “Arsal is a trust in the hands of President Michel Sleiman. Arsal’s residents are with the Syrian revolution.” Denying the presence of Al-Qaeda members in Arsal, he said: “There are only patriotic men, at the forefront of them is the Lebanese Army.”
Meanwhile, MP Assem Areji said: “We came to show solidarity with Arsal’s residents. The defense minister’s statement is not valid because Arsal is the city of steadfastness.” He added that Franjieh’s remarks were designed to target Arsal and the March 14 parties.
LF MP Farid Habib rejected Franjieh’s remarks, saying they were made at the “behest of the Syrian regime.”
Meanwhile, Baath Party MP Assem Qanso said Al-Qaeda has infiltrated a number of extremist groups in Lebanon.
“Al-Qaeda has infiltrated more than 20 extremist organizations that [share similar ideologies to Al-Qaeda],” Qanso said in remarks published Monday by pan-Arab Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat. He said Salafist movements in north Lebanon and several areas in the eastern Bekaa Valley have provided “fertile ground” for the spread of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon. With additional reporting by Rakan Faqih