BEIRUT: Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi has vowed to prevent the flow of gunmen from Lebanon to Syria, or vice versa, amid acknowledgement by Lebanese officials of difficulties in controlling the poorly demarcated porous frontier.“Those who are demanding that gunmen be allowed to cross into Syria or vice versa are mistaken in their demand and address,” Kahwagi said in an interview to be published by the weekly magazine Al-Afkar Friday.
He said that the Lebanese Army, which deployed last month on the northern border with Syria following a series of security incidents, has bolstered its presence in the Wadi Khaled frontier area.
“Military forces are doing their best to control the border, prevent the two-way [arms] smuggling and stop any infiltrations,” Kahwagi said.
Kahwagi was in attendance at a Higher Defense Council session Thursday on the volatile security situation on the Lebanese-Syrian border. The meeting came against the backdrop of repeated demands by the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, to the Lebanese government to tighten security and prevent arms-smuggling across the border with Syria, where an increasingly militarized opposition is fighting to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The meeting, chaired by President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace, also came amid reported warnings by U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly against handing over Syrian refugees or dissidents, including members of the rebel Free Syrian Army, to Syrian authorities.
The council, headed by Sleiman, expressed satisfaction with measures taken to maintain security in the country, particularly on the border with Syria in the north and the Bekaa, and in the south with Israel.
“The council discussed the security situation and was briefed by commanders of security apparatuses on the results of the missions they have carried out in all areas. It expressed satisfaction with the security situation and the measures taken,” said a statement issued by the council after the meeting.
“The council was briefed on the security situation in the south and affirmed the continued cooperation with UNIFIL,” it said, referring to the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon.
“The council stressed the continued cooperation with state institutions to deal with any emergency situation in accordance with their responsibilities to protect civil peace in implementation of the Cabinet’s policy contained in its ministerial statement,” it said.
“The council outlined the missions to the ministries and security apparatuses and kept its decisions confidential,” the statement added.
The council’s meeting was attended by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the ministers of defense, interior, foreign affairs, finance, economy, justice and information as well as top security and military commanders.
Earlier Thursday, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said the Higher Defense Council would discuss preventing gunmen from Lebanon from crossing into Syria and vice versa.
“The closure of the border in Arida [in the north] to the Masnaa [border crossing] is very difficult,” Charbel told the Voice of Lebanon radio station. “So far, there is no political decision to close the border except to gunmen.”
Information Minister Walid Daouk, who attended the council’s meeting, said the government was doing its duty to help Syrian refugees who crossed into Lebanon to flee the violence in Syria, but acknowledged difficulties in controlling the porous Lebanese-Syrian border. There are more than 7,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered with U.N. agencies.
“The government is taking the maximum measures to control the border with Syria. But this matter encounters some difficulties which no one can deny because of the large border geographical area between the two countries,” Daouk said in an interview with the National News Agency. “We wish our Syrian brethren all the best and hope they will be able to reach a solution to stop the fighting and restore stability to Syria,” he added.The Lebanese-Syrian border has become increasingly tense since the popular uprising in Syria began a year ago, with several incursions into Lebanon by the Syrian army and the killing of Lebanese citizens by Syrian security forces on the ground and at sea. Syrian officials have accused Lebanese factions of smuggling weapons to Syrian protesters demanding Assad’s ouster.
Minister of State Ali Qanso told The Daily Star that the Lebanese Army has arrested a number of armed men among more than 2,000 Syrian refugees who crossed into Lebanon last week, fleeing the devastated city of Homs. He said the armed men belonged to the FSA.
Daouk said the Higher Defense Council’s meeting was aimed at following up “the current security situation, particularly the situation on the Lebanese-Syrian border and Syrian refugees, and discussing measures to bolster stability in Lebanon and prevent the repercussions of external events.”
He also said that the government’s reminder to foreign diplomats to behave was not directed at Connelly.
“During the Cabinet’s session yesterday, a number of ministers made remarks dealing with the security situation and the conditions of Syrian refugees entering Lebanon because of the ongoing events in Syria, in addition to what has been reported by media outlets in this regard,” Daouk told NNA.
“It is natural under these critical circumstances the region is witnessing to intensify meetings at the highest level to discuss and take the required measures in order to reassure the Lebanese about the internal situation,” Daouk said.
Asked if the government’s reminder to foreign diplomats to behave was aimed at restricting the foreign ambassadors’ movements and was primarily directed at Connelly, Daouk said: “We are keen on the best relations with friendly and brotherly states. The position we declared [at the Cabinet] came in a general context and did not target a specific ambassador or a specific state.” He added that the Cabinet measure followed recent rhetoric by Lebanese politicians commenting on the attitudes of a number of diplomats toward the year-long unrest in Syria.
“We wanted to remind [the foreign diplomats] of the rules of diplomatic dealings because we do not want new factors of tension to add to the political tension and the sharp divisions in addressing issues under discussion,” Daouk said.
Asked to comment on Connelly’s demand to Lebanese officials to accommodate FSA members, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai told reporters at Beirut airport before leaving for Jordan, “We are a Lebanese state that does not need anyone to take its decisions. The Lebanese state knows how to shoulder its responsibilities and consults on what it should do. We are an independent, free and sovereign country. The government decides what it deems fit for the country’s interest.”