The Lebanese Army’s successful security dragnet in Beirut’s southern suburbs that led to the freeing of hostages has restored confidence in state authority that was badly shaken last month following a spate of kidnappings in the capital.
The kidnapping spree had revived memories of the lawlessness and chaos that reigned in Beirut during the 1975-90 Civil War, when rival militias held sway at the expense of government authority.
In addition to Turkish businessman Aydin Tufan Tekin, who was released by the Meqdad clan under pressure from the Army Tuesday night, Turkish citizen Abdel-Baset Orsolan was freed Thursday night after the group that held him for nearly a month handed him to General Security personnel in Beirut.
In another blow to the powerful Meqdad family, Lebanese Army intelligence personnel arrested the clan’s media spokesman Maher Meqdad after raiding his house in the Haret Hreik neighborhood, south of Beirut, Thursday night.
The Army’s operation, which included house raids in the teeming southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, in search of the kidnappers and people wanted on arrest warrants, was viewed by analysts as “a strong message” to anyone or any group trying to undermine security or infringe on state authority.
Matching words with deeds, the Army’s campaign in the southern suburbs, which had the tacit support of the two powerful Shiite groups, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, came a few days after Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi issued a stern warning against attempts to undermine security, saying the military was capable of crushing gunmen on the street if political parties ended their support for them. He also said that the military would not allow any political party to blackmail it on any issue.
“The Army has informed all political parties of its ability to nip problems in the bud and deliver severe and costly blows to all gunmen regardless of the party they belong to, provided that [these parties] lift their cover for these gunmen through clear media declarations,” Kahwagi said in a speech at a ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Yarze on Aug. 30.
Top Lebanese leaders have lauded the Army’s operation in the southern suburbs, saying it served to bolster state authority in the face of internal and external security threats facing the politically divided country as a result of the 18-month turmoil next door in Syria.
“These steps serve the interest of the state’s image in the interior and the country’s reputation abroad,” President Michel Sleiman said during a meeting with Kahwagi at Baabda Palace Wednesday.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the Army’s measures were proof that the government would not be lenient with any attempt to undermine civil peace or stability.
“The security measures taken [by the Army] will not be seasonal. They will continue in order to consolidate security in the country,” Mikati said during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said his Amal Movement and Hezbollah approved of the Army’s entry into every house in the southern suburbs to pursue wanted people and drug dealers and to impose state authority also in the Bekaa region and the south.
Now armed with its successful clampdown on the state of lawlessness in the southern suburbs, the Army is poised to deal with another tough security challenge in the north following Pope Benedict XVI’s three-day visit to Lebanon which ends Sunday.
The Future Movement and its March 14 allies have vowed to protest last week’s release on bail of three Army officers detained over the killing of a Muslim sheikh and his companion in the northern district of Akkar in May, fueling fears of clashes between troops and residents. The decision, by the Military Court of Cassation, immediately drew protests from politicians and residents in the area as well as criticism from Future MPs in the north.
The three officers were arrested following an incident on May 20, during which Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed, a Muslim preacher opposed to the Syrian regime, and his companion Hussein al-Mereb were shot dead at a Lebanese Army checkpoint in the village of Kweikhat in Akkar.
The officers were released early in July on bail but were re-arrested on July 16. Their arrests at the time sparked street protests by Army supporters, who demanded their release.
Future Movement MPs in the north and Akkar sheikhs have demanded that the Army officers linked to the killing be tried. They have also demanded that the case be referred to the Judicial Council, the country’s highest judicial body, which looks into security cases that threaten to destabilize the country. This demand has so far been rejected by the government.
The parliamentary Future bloc of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has slammed the release of the three Army officers, while praising the Army’s raids in the southern suburbs to free the five hostages.
Following its meeting this week, the bloc said that neither it nor the families “of the two martyrs, people of the north, Akkar and the March 14 coalition would remain silent or allow that the rights of martyrs to have criminals tried be violated.”
“The days following the visit of the pope will witness several steps to put this issue back on the right track,” the bloc said. It added that the three officers had been released at a “suspicious” time.
Future Akkar MP Khaled Daher said the release of the three officers had caused anger in the entire Akkar region. “This was an ill-conceived and suspicious move, and it appears that its aim was to cause tension in the country prior to the pope’s visit to Lebanon, as if they want to sabotage the visit,” he said.
Since the Kweikhat incident, the Army’s role has come under fire by MPs and politicians in the north.
Responding to critics of the Army’s performance, Kahwagi said: “The Army from now on will not keep silent on attempts to target it or slander it in word or deed by any party.”