BEIRUT: Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun said he escaped an assassination attempt when his convoy came under fire in southern Lebanon in the latest of abortive bids targeting leading Christian politicians. Interior Minister Marwan Charbel confirmed one of several decoy vehicles belonging to Aoun’s convoy was shot at in the southern city of Sidon Saturday night when he was returning to Beirut following a visit to the Christian town of Jezzine.
“One of the convoy’s cars was hit with a bullet. Aoun was not in the targeted car and none of his bodyguards were injured,” Charbel told The Daily Star.
A report by forensic experts who examined the convoy confirmed that one vehicle was hit with a bullet.
“Investigation is trying to determine who was responsible for the gunfire,” Charbel said.
Aoun, a key ally of Hezbollah, said the perpetrators of the attempted attack would be identified, just as previous would-be assassins of the FPM leader were discovered.
“I have been exposed to three assassination plots [in the past] and the perpetrators were uncovered. This is the fourth one and we hope they will be uncovered,” Aoun told supporters in Batroun, north Lebanon, Saturday night after returning from the south.
“Do not be concerned about the incident we encountered, which is to be expected, as I am addressing you now and I am in perfect health,” he said.
Security sources also confirmed a shot was fired at a vehicle belonging to one of two decoy convoys accompanying Aoun during his return trip from Jezzine.
Aoun headed to Jezzine earlier in the day in a convoy of three cars. The three took separate routes during the voyage to and from Jezzine, where Aoun had earlier addressed supporters in an apparent primer for the upcoming 2013 elections.
Meanwhile, a probe was launched Sunday at the alleged site of the shooting incident in Sidon.
Sidon’s General Prosecutor Sameh al-Haj, accompanied by Lebanese Army Intelligence personnel, judicial police and the Internal Security Force’s Information Branch, conducted an investigation at the end of the eastern Sidon highway leading to Beirut – the alleged site of the shooting on the convoy vehicle.
Media reports said the shooting took place near the Bahaeddine Hariri mosque in the coastal city.
Before heading to the site of attack, which lies about 1 kilometer from the Bahaeddine Hariri mosque, Haj met officials at Sidon’s Justice Palace to discuss and review security reports of the incident. Haj listened to testimonies of residents and workers. Authorities are also conducting a search of nearby, unfinished buildings and an orchard as part of their probe.
Prior to his arrival in Jezzine, members of the Internal Security Forces and Lebanese soldiers, accompanied by police dogs, searched places Aoun was expected to visit.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is in New York to attend a U.N. General Assembly meeting, called Aoun to congratulate him on his safety following the shooting incident.
Mikati stressed that “relevant security apparatuses are stepping up their investigation to uncover the circumstances of the incident and pursue the perpetrators,” according to a statement released by his office.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and other March 8 politicians also called Aoun to congratulate him on his safety. “Sayyed Nasrallah contacted Gen. Aoun to check on his health and congratulated him on surviving the assassination attempt,” Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station reported.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai condemned the attack on Aoun’s convoy and thanked God for the FPM leader’s safety.
“We thank God’s hand, which saved us from all these problems. Hasn’t the time come to solve the security problem in Lebanon?” Rai told reporters at Beirut airport upon his return from India following a pastoral trip.
“Is it logical for all politicians to stay at their homes, and they cannot come out? Is this Lebanon, which we call a country of coexistence and which we demand to be a land of civilizations and religions? And can we live in fear?” Rai asked.
The attack on Aoun’s convoy was the latest reported security threat to prominent politicians in Lebanon, where divisions between the opposition March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc over the 18-month-old uprising in neighboring Syria have stoked sectarian and political tensions.
Two other Christian politicians, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, and Batroun MP Boutros Harb, Aoun’s political foes, have said they were the targets of assassination attempts earlier this year.
Geagea said shots were fired at his residence in Maarab, north of Beirut, in April; and Harb said security forces found a bomb in an elevator at his office building in July in another alleged assassination attempt.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Progressive Socialist leader MP Walid Jumblatt were reported to have taken precautions in their travels in Lebanon after they had been warned about security threats against them. Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel said he had also been warned by security forces of attempts to kill him.
Former PM Saad Hariri, leader of the March 14 coalition, has been living outside Lebanon for nearly a year and a half, mainly due to fears for his security.
Lebanon has also witnessed a spate of kidnappings of foreign nationals, reminiscent of the Civil War days, and in August a former Lebanese minister was charged with plotting to carry out terrorist attacks in the country, as well as assassinate religious and political figures.
Batroun Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra said he was the target of at least two assassination attempts and that his colleague, MP George Adwan, also faced similar risks.
“We have clear-cut information that another MP in the Lebanese Forces is threatened with an assassination attempt, and he is our colleague George Adwan,” Zahra told MTV in an interview Saturday.
“Security measures are being taken,” he added.
Zahra, who moved to stay at Geagea’s residence in Maarab, said he was also the target of at least two assassination attempts. “There were at least two attempts in the most recent period ... this is why Samir Geagea insisted that my permanent residence be in Maarab,” he said.
Addressing his supporters at a dinner in Batroun, Aoun spoke briefly about the shooting. “Why do they want to assassinate me? I have not killed anyone, nor have I robbed anyone,” he said.
Referring to the FPM’s long-standing battle against corruption in the public administration, Aoun said: “We are taking the opposite course ... They are setting the entire [Middle] East and the Mediterranean Basin on fire. That’s what they want to do in Lebanon. But we in Lebanon have managed to stop this fire.”