BEIRUT: Khalid Hmayyed, the man whose arrest sparked recent clashes between the Lebanese military and gunmen in the eastern town of Arsal, was a member of Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front), a militant Islamist group with ties to Al-Qaeda, the head of Army Intelligence said late Monday.
“The wanted man was very dangerous: a professional with experience in criminal activities. He was a unique target [for authorities] given his potential to affect Lebanon’s stability and prestige,” Brig. Gen. Edmond Fadel said during a chat with reporters.
“He [Hmayyed] worked with the Nusra Front, the extremist group that is fighting in Syria,” Fadel added, referring to the group which the United States listed in 2012 as a foreign “terrorist organization.”
Two Lebanese soldiers were killed Friday after an Army unit, which was trying to apprehend Hmayyed in the outskirts of Arsal, was ambushed by gunmen in retaliation for the arrest.
Security sources identified Hmayyed as the individual sought out by the military.
Several Lebanese officials have alleged the presence of Al-Qaeda in parts of east Lebanon.
In 2011, Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn alleged the group was infiltrating the country through Arsal under the guise of Syrian dissidents.
Although many criticized Ghosn for his remarks, the minister stood firm on his claims.
Fadel Tuesday said Hmayyed, who died during the shootout in Arsal, also played a role in the abduction of the seven Estonians in Lebanon in March 2011 as well as an attack on the Internal Security Forces near the border with Syria in November 2011.
The Army Intelligence chief gave a brief account of last week’s events in Arsal, where media are banned from reporting.
He said the Army unit dispatched to apprehend Hmayyed was made up of 10 Military Intelligence soldiers who drove in two civilian vehicles. He added that two of the 10 soldiers wore civilian clothing.
The Lebanese security official said the military managed to overpower Hamayyed near his house on the outskirts of Arsal. However, the soldiers had to open fire on him after he shot four times in their direction, he added.
“[Hmayyed], who was wounded, was then apprehended [and the Army] began preparations for his transportation out of the town,” he said, adding that the military unit intended to take a route bypassing Arsal.
Snow and bad weather, however, prevented the patrol from advancing “before it was ambushed an hour later with the participation of 80 gunmen who transported the wounded members of the patrol to the municipality building [in Arsal].”
At the municipality building, he said, the bodies of the two dead soldiers were put on display “in celebration.” The other soldiers, Fadel added, were beaten up.
On Sunday, LBCI broadcast images of the soldiers following the ambush.
The photos, obtained exclusively by the Lebanese television station, showed the soldiers in blood-soaked uniforms at the municipality building. One image also showed people outside the municipality where a military Humvee was parked.
Fadel said Monday the Army was not an institution that “pursues revenge,” but warned those behind the killings that the Army “will never forget.”
“ Whoever attacks us is now a wanted [individual],” he added.
The Army has so far apprehended nine men from the town and increased its presence around the area by deploying elite units and setting up checkpoints in search of the gunmen.
Fadel said Monday that the military plan to retaliate was still under study and would “take into consideration the circumstances.”