BEIRUT: Lebanon's Army commander met with members of a notorious drug dealing family on Friday, five days after a massive military operation was launched in the Bekaa Valley to hunt for those behind a deadly attack on an army patrol. In a meeting with representatives of the Jaafar clan, General Jean Kahwaji called Monday's ambush on five soldiers a "terrorist attack" but insisted that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) were not seeking revenge for the men's deaths. "The army is not targeting a family or tribe, especially since the attackers are not from a single family," he said, adding that LAF troops had received clear orders to treat Bekaa Valley residents as members of their own families and not to target innocent civilians.
The meeting came as LAF troops arrested Hassan Abbas Jaafar, two days after raiding his house in the Sharawneh neighborhood of Baalbek. Jaafar, who was captured in Baalbek's Dar al-Wasiaa area, is thought to have plotted Monday's attack on the soldiers. Their vehicle was pummeled with machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades at it passed through the Riyaq district near Zahle.
Police have said the soldiers - Zakaria Ahmad Habla, Mahmoud Ahmad Mroun, Khoder Ahmad Suleiman and Badr Hussein Badr Baghdad - were deliberately targeted. A fifth soldier, Major Allam Donia, survived and is being cared for in a Beirut hospital. Top army and defense officials have vowed to press on with the manhunt until all the fugitives are captured or killed.
The attack on the unsuspecting soldiers was allegedly carried out as retribution for the killing of Ali Abbas Jaafar, a senior figure in the family's drug empire. He was shot dead by LAF soldiers in March after refusing to stop his stolen vehicle at a checkpoint near Baalbek.
Security forces began negotiations with members of the Jaafar family earlier this week to persuade the killers of the soldiers to turn themselves into the authorities. The Jaafar family has condemned the attack, promising that it will not harbor any involved suspects.
Hizbullah and Amal have likewise pledged not to provide cover for the suspects, most of whom are based in the Bekaa, a Shiite stronghold.
Army troops pressed on with raids on criminal gangs in the Bekaa on Friday and arrested 20 suspects, bringing the total number of detained fugitives to 89. The LAF also confiscated large cashes of weapons and drugs found in caves in the Hermel and Baalbek areas of the Bekaa.
The raids are part of a larger military strategy adopted by the LAF to ensure stability ahead of Lebanon's June 7 parliamentary elections, ordered by President Michel Sleiman.
The Central News Agency on Friday quoted sources as reporting the LAF had encircled Monday's attackers in a small area.
An-Nahar meanwhile quoted visitors to the president as reporting Sleiman as saying the LAF was making considerable strides in its national crackdown on criminal activity and had pinpointed an area where Monday's attackers are possibly hiding.
Security in the Bekaa Valley had been volatile over the last few years, with the area controlled by armed drug dealing families who have frequently exchanged fire with army troops.