BEIRUT: The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) arrested three members of the Jaafar family Thursday, four days after a massive military operation was launched in the Bekaa Valley in response to a deadly ambush on an army patrol. Army forces arrested the men, two of whom were wounded, in the Dar al-Wasiaa region in Baalbek. One of the men arrested killed a Lebanese soldier and his mother in the town of Ali al-Nahri last year, the army said.
The arrests came as the LAF expanded its military operations in Baalbek's Sharawneh neighborhood after raiding the house of Hassan Abbas Jaafar on Wednesday. Jaafar is believed to have masterminded Monday's attack on the soldiers, whose vehicle was pumped full of machine-gun fire and rocket propelled grenades by gunmen. Police have said the soldiers - Zakaria Ahmad Habla, Mahmoud Ahmad Mroun, Khoder Ahmad Suleiman and Badr Hussein Badr Baghdad - were deliberately targeted as they drove through the Riyaq district near Zahle. A fifth soldier, Major Allam Donia, survived and is recovering from his wounds in a Beirut hospital.
The murder of the soldiers was supposedly carried out as revenge for the killing of Ali Abbas Jaafar, a leading figure in the family's drug empire. He was shot dead by Lebanese troops at the end of March after refusing to stop his stolen car at a checkpoint near Baalbek. Security services are said to be negotiating with Jaafar family members to persuade the killers of the soldiers to hand themselves in. The family has condemned Monday's attack and promised it will not harbor any suspects involved in the ambush.
The LAF increased patrols around Sharawneh on Thursday, erecting checkpoints on all roads leading to the area. Army forces carried out several raids in the Hermel town of Wadi Nahle and the Baalbek region of Brital, where they confiscated several stolen cars and large quantities of cannabis, well informed sources told the Central News Agency. The raids took place after the army received information that the perpetrators of Monday's attack could be hiding in the town. Security the Bekaa Valley has been turbulent for years, with the area controlled by a number of armed drug dealing families.
The LAF raids form part of a larger military strategy adopted by the Lebanese security services to ensure stability ahead of Lebanon's June 7 parliamentary elections. Sixty-nine criminals have already been arrested as part of the operation, which is being carried out on the orders of President Michel Sleiman, the army said. Troops confiscated drug-making equipment and 13 stolen cars during a raid in the village of Hawch Barda on Wednesday. One of the cars was the silver Grand Cherokee used in Monday's attacks. The Syrian military has meanwhile continued to send troops to monitor its rugged Lebanon border to prevent potential attempts by the fugitives to exit Lebanon. The manhunt would continue until the soldier's killers were found, Defense Minister Elias Murr told An-Nahar newspaper Thursday.
Following a meeting with Sleiman, head of Hizbullah's Loyalty to the Resistance Parliamentary bloc told reporters Thursday that his party was coordinating with the Lebanese Army to arrest the attackers.
"We reject any attacks on the Lebanese Army," he said.
Also on Thursday, Telecommunications Minister Gibran Bassil refuted allegations that he withheld information about Monday's deadly attack.
Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud called Bassil to inform him "that one of the security services had complained about not receiving the information in full" and accused Bassil of withholding it, the minister told LBC Television. An investigation into the allegations proved they were false, he added. "When there is an urgent security need, we ... provide the data immediately, and this is what we did."