BEIRUT: Lebanon’s top leaders and the Army commander pledged Sunday to apprehend the gunmen involved in an ambush that killed two Lebanese soldiers in the eastern town of Arsal, as the two victims were laid to rest amid calls for punishing the perpetrators.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati voiced his government’s full support for the military measures to apprehend the culprits, saying the gunmen involved in the ambush should be handed over to the Army immediately.
Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi described the ambush that killed Captain Pierre Bashaalani, 31, and Sergeant Ibrahim Zahraman, 32, as a “premeditated crime, vowing to punish the “criminals” who fired on an Army patrol trying to hunt down a wanted man in Arsal Friday.
The Army arrested nine people Saturday, two of them suspected of involvement in the ambush, security sources told The Daily Star.
Lebanese troops beefed up their presence in Arsal, sealing off the town’s entrances and exits in what appeared to be part of the Army’s measures to apprehend the gunmen involved in the deadly ambush that also wounded a number of soldiers and gunmen and killed the wanted man accused of “several terrorist acts.”
The state-run National News Agency said special forces, backed by military vehicles, set up checkpoints on roads leading to Arsal, closing main and side roads, including mountainous tracks used for smuggling. Troops also deployed in fields around the town.
President Michel Sleiman told George Bashaalani, the father of the slain captain, that the Army was determined to find all those involved and put them on trial.
“The Army Command is determined to arrest the attackers on its patrol in Arsal,” Sleiman said after offering condolences to Bashaalani’s parents in the Zahle town of Mreijet.
In response, George Bashaalani urged Sleiman “not to be lenient with the killers and to strike with an iron fist against anyone who tries to break the law and tamper with security.”
Speaking at a funeral procession held for his son at the St. Georges Church in Mreijet, Bashaalani demanded that “justice take its course and the criminals be punished so I can feel the blood of my martyr son will not go in vain.”
Mikati visited the Army Command headquarters at the Defense Ministry in Yarze, east of Beirut, in a show of solidarity with the military measures taken in Arsal to apprehend the gunmen suspected of involvement in killing the two soldiers.
Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn said the Army had launched raids in Arsal in search of the gunmen involved in the ambush. He told LBCI TV that the Army arrested four gunmen who were trying to flee Arsal.
According to Ghosn, Army Intelligence has obtained a list of names of the gunmen involved in the ambush. “The Army is carrying out raids and searching Arsal to arrest the wanted suspects in the area,” he said.
Mikati said the gunmen involved should be handed over to the Army immediately, adding that the military has the government’s “full political cover” for its measures.
“I confirmed my full support for the Lebanese Army. At the same time, I stressed to the command the need for this problem to be solved as soon as possible and the gunmen to be handed over to the Lebanese Army,” Mikati said after meeting Kahwagi and Ghosn.
He said he had agreed with Kahwagi on a series of measures to be taken in Arsal. “Let’s leave it to the Army to resolve this matter away from any [sectarian] tension. We will not accept that a group of Lebanese feels targeted in these circumstances,” Mikati said. “I came here to support the Army. I call on the media outlets to stop inflaming sectarian sentiments.”
For his part, Kahwagi, issued a stern warning to the two soldiers’ killers.
“We will not keep silent or accept any political compromise over the blood of Maj. Pierre Bashaalani and Sergeant Ibrahim Zahraman. We reject any attempt by any party to play down the impact and horror of the crime that was committed against the Army in a premeditated manner and by barbaric means alien to our Christian and Muslim beliefs,” the Army chief said in an order of the day to the military.
Kahwagi added that the Army would take all necessary action to apprehend the killers. “The Army will not back off come what may until the criminals, regardless of their identities and affiliations and no matter how loud the cries of their defenders are, are punished,” Kahwagi said.“Our promise to our two martyrs, their families and friends that the perpetrators and accomplices will get their punishment whatever the cost, is for the sake of Lebanon’ unity, security and stability,” he added.
Kahwagi said the Army would continue its mission to fight terrorism. “Anyone who thinks that our work against terrorism, that seeks to destabilize our society and coexistence, might stop for any reason is mistaken,” he added.
The Army said Friday that unidentified gunmen ambushed a military patrol that was attempting to apprehend a man wanted for “several acts of terrorism.”
Security sources told The Daily Star that Khalid Hmayyed, the wanted man, was killed in a clash with the military, which prompted gunmen in the area to retaliate.
The NNA reported that Hmayyed was wanted in the case of the seven Estonians who were kidnapped in Lebanon and later released in 2011.
Zahraman was laid to rest Saturday in his hometown of Akkar, north Lebanon, amid calls by his relatives and mourners for handing over the killers to the Army and punishing them.
A funeral procession, attended by Kahwagi, representatives of political leaders and senior Army officers, was held for Bashaalani at the Saint George Church in his hometown of Mreijet Sunday.
Black-clad women threw rice and rose petals at Bashaalani’s coffin, wrapped in a Lebanese flag and carried shoulder high by mourners walking in Mreijet’s narrow streets. Fireworks and heavy gunfire erupted as Bashaalani’s coffin was carried inside the church for the funeral procession.
Following the funeral process, Bashaalani’s coffin was carried shoulder high by soldiers to the family cemetery where he was laid to rest.
Meanwhile, a delegation from the Committee of Muslim Scholars visited Arsal in an attempt defuse tension in the town. The visit was coordinated with the Army. The delegation, headed by Sheikh Salem Rafei, met with Arsal Mayor Ali Hujeiri, members of the town’s municipal council and notables.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Rafei said the committee demanded an investigation into the incident in Arsal and called on the Army “to lift the blockade on the area in order to prevent frictions.”
Rafei said that neither the Army nor the town’s residents are infallible, warning against attempts “to play off the Army against Arsal’s residents.”
He also called for the release of Sheikh Yehya Hujeiri, a committee member, who was among those apprehended by the Army following the ambush.
Elsewhere, Akkar’s Future bloc MP Khaled Daher accused Hezbollah of plotting the ambush in Arsal. “The operation was coordinated between Hezbollah and some [Army] officers who are loyal to Hezbollah,” Daher told a news conference at his house in Tripoli.
He said that because of their support for Syrian refugees fleeing the war in Syria to Lebanon towns and villages in the north, Arsal’s residents were being targeted in Lebanon by “the Syrian regime, its agents and the government of Bashar Assad.”
Daher also accused the Mikati government of bias toward the “oppressive Syrian regime and the expansionist Persian regime” in Iran.
Referring to Hezbollah and its March 8 allies who support the Assad regime, Daher said: “We warn against a conspiracy by the agents of the Syrian and Iranian regimes against Lebanon and attempts to push Lebanon’s military and security institutions through some agents of these two criminal regimes” to clash with predominantly-Sunni areas. – Additional reporting by Rakan al-Fakih