BEIRUT: The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) obstructed all entrance points to a neighborhood in the Bekaa city of Baalbek and arrested 69 people following raids on criminal gangs after Monday's deadly attack on an army patrol, a security source told The Daily Star Wednesday.
LAF troops raided the house of Hassan Abbas Jaafar, thought to have masterminded the ambush on the unsuspecting soldiers, and cordoned off the area surrounding his house in the Sharawneh neighborhood, the source said.
According to a statement issued by the LAF on Wednesday, soldiers also shot at two men on Tuesday, killing one. The men were targeted after attempting to flee soldiers during a raid in the village of Hawch Barda, suggesting they were implicated in Monday's attack which saw gunmen pummel an army vehicle with machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades.
Police believe the soldiers - Zakaria Ahmad Habla, Mahmoud Ahmad Mroun, Khoder Ahmad Suleiman and Badr Hussein Badr Baghdad - were purposefully targeted as they drove through the Riyaq district, near Zahle.
A fifth surviving soldier, identified by security officials as Major Allam Donia, remains in the Saint Georges hospital in Beirut. The suspect killed on Tuesday has yet to be publicly identified.
The LAF said it also confiscated drug-making equipment in a factory during the Haouch Barda raid, as well as 13 stolen cars. One of the cars was the silver Grand Cherokee sport utility vehicle used in Monday's attack, the statement said.
Troops were said to be looking for the suspects in the "northern Bekaa from the northern area of Hermel to Dar al-Wasaa and Yamoune, as well as the eastern and western fronts of Lebanon's mountain range."
The attack on the soldiers was supposedly carried out as retribution for the death of Ali Abbas Jafaar, a senior figure in the Jafaar family's drug empire. He was killed by Lebanese troops at the end of March after refusing to stop his stolen car at a military checkpoint near Baalbek.
Jaafar had long been hunted by the Lebanese security officials for drug trafficking, attempted murder and attacking military positions.
Security in the Bekaa Valley has been volatile for a number of years, with the area lorded over by a number of powerful drug dealing families who exploit Lebanon's political instability to grow illegal drug crops.
News of the army cordon came as the LAF began negotiations with members of the Jaafar family to persuade the killers of the soldiers to turn themselves in, OTV said on Wednesday. The Jaafar clan have condemned Monday's attack, but stressed that the LAF could not raid the homes of "decent people," AFP reported. The family also promised it would not harbor any suspects involved in the ambush.
Hizbullah likewise pledged not to provide cover for the suspects, most of whom are based in the Bekaa, a stronghold of the Shiite group.
Meanwhile, President Michel Sleiman met with Lebanon's Army commander General Jean Kahwaji Wednesday to discuss efforts to bring the fugitives to justice.
The LAF launched a major military operation in the Bekaa Valley in the aftermath of the attack in the hopes of catching the gang. Convoys of army vehicles were deployed on Monday, along with helicopters fitted with missiles which security sources said would be fired at the assailants if spotted.
The army has said the operation, which has seen swathes of the Bekaa area cordoned off, will last until the armed men are reprimanded or killed.
According to a report in An-Nahar newspaper on Wednesday, the army has already seized hundreds of kilograms of poppy seeds, weapons and stolen vehicles, and carried out a raid in the town of Majdel Anjar, arresting one man. The man was able to escape, however, after unidentified attackers threw a sound bomb at the soldiers, the newspaper said.
In a show of support, the Syrian army deployed troops along its border with Lebanon late on Monday night in order to hinder possible attempts by the fugitives to exit Lebanon.
Lebanese commandos have also been positioned along the mountainous border area to search for the perpetrators of Monday's attack. - With AFP