BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army will continue its house raids in Beirut’s southern suburbs until a Turkish hostage and four Syrians held by the Meqdad clan have been freed, a senior military official said Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Army arrested a gang accused of kidnapping Syrian opposition activists in north Lebanon to hand them over to the regime.
“The Army operation in the southern suburbs will go on until the kidnapped people have been released. This will operation will not stop,” the official told The Daily Star.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, the official said that in addition to the predominantly Shiite southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, troops were also raiding houses and hideouts in other areas in search of the kidnap victims and their captors.
He added that a number of people had been arrested during the Army dragnet on suspicions of their involvement in the kidnappings targeting Syrians and a Turkish national last month.
Al-Jadeed TV also quoted a military source as saying that the Army would take “unprecedented strict measures” aimed at freeing the hostages. “The Army is carrying out raids in the southern suburbs and no areas are off limits to it,” the source said.
On orders from President Michel Sleiman and Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi, the military launched a massive manhunt in the southern suburbs Friday night, namely in the Rways neighborhood where the Meqdad clan lives, in an attempt to apprehend a number of people blamed for the abductions.
The Meqdad clan’s “military wing” has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of Turkish businessman Aydin Tekin and more than 20 Syrians in retaliation for the kidnapping by Syrian rebels of a family member, Hassan Meqdad.
The clan has since released all but four Syrians and Tekin to use them as a bargaining chip for Meqdad’s release.
Sleiman praised the Army dragnet in the southern suburbs in search of the kidnappers of the Syrians and the Turkish businessman. He said he had ordered the Army operation publicly and in his meetings with the Army commander and Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn.
“I affirm that the Army will continue to pursue them [kidnappers]. I hope the judiciary will accompany the Army with its work to ensure punishment for the kidnappers and secure the freedom of the kidnapped,” Sleiman said.
Maher al-Meqdad, the spokesman of the clan, said his tribe had lost contacts with the party holding Tekin and the four Syrians following the Army operation, but maintained that the hostages were still held by the clan’s “military wing.”
“The clan has lost contacts with the party holding the guests [hostages]. Some 50 young men from the Meqdad family are providing protection for the five men,” he told The Daily Star. He said there were rumors in the southern suburbs that the captors had whisked the hostages to the Bekaa region.
The spokesman added that that the Army had raided the houses of Meqdad family and their friends in search of Tekin. He said that even his house had been raided Friday night while he was sleeping and that his wife had opened the door for masked soldiers searching for the Turkish businessman.Meqdad linked the Army raids in the southern suburbs to what he called “a Turkish-Lebanese deal” sponsored by Sleiman. “The deal calls for the release of the 10 remaining Lebanese hostages in Syria in exchange for Tekin’s freedom,” he said, adding that the deal excluded their kinsman, Hassan.
But the clan’s spokesman was firm that his cousin should be part of the deal. “The Meqdad family’s position is Tekin for Hassan. If Hassan dies, Tekin will face the same fate,” Meqdad said.
He added that the “heavy Army deployment” in the southern suburbs, including the positioning of snipers on rooftops of buildings, had created tension and panic among residents and brought businesses to a standstill in the teeming area.
The spokesman said his clan had no problem with the Lebanese Army. “We don’t want to enter into a confrontation with the Army. We will not fire a single bullet at the Army,” he said. “Our problem is with the Free Syrian Army and Turkey, which is providing the FSA with a safe haven.” He said troops even raided the house of the abducted Meqdad.
Speaking to Al-Jadeed TV Sunday night, Hassan Meqdad’s wife, Iman Harfoushe, said she and her 7-year-old daughter, Hiba, had been scared to death when masked soldiers raided her house. “They put the rifle at my daughter’s head while she was sleeping. They searched the house, even the bathroom. It was a horrible raid,” she said.
The Army has said the raids in the Rways and other neighborhoods in the southern suburbs were designed to execute arrest warrants against individuals linked to kidnappings and recent incidents, including the blocking of the Beirut airport road by burning tires.
The Army said it had arrested a number of wanted people, including Hasan al-Meqdad, brother of Maher, the clan’s spokesman.
Soldiers also seized Saturday a jeepload of light arms, ammunition, explosives and military equipment in Rways, according to an Army statement.
Meanwhile, Lebanese Army intelligence agents arrested Sunday a gang accused of kidnapping Syrian activists in northern Lebanon, the state-run National News Agency reported.
“Members of a network operating between Tripoli and Akkar [bordering Syria] and accused of planning and carrying out the kidnapping of Syrian opposition figures and delivering them to the regime” were arrested, a security official told AFP.
The official, who declined to be identified, said “at least one Syrian kidnapped by the network has been released in the Akkar region,” and later added that three Lebanese suspects had been detained.
Meanwhile, Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani said that Turkey was not responsible for the abduction of Lebanese in Syria, and slammed the retaliatory kidnapping of Turkish citizens in Lebanon.
“Turkey is not a country that kidnaps and it has nothing to do with the abduction of the 10 Lebanese in Syria,” Qabbani said after his meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara. He added that Turkey was making efforts to secure the release of the Lebanese hostages in Syria.
The mufti was in Turkey where he attended a conference on Muslim-Christian relations in the Arab Spring.