LABWEH/HERMEL, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army heavily deployed in the Baalbek-Hermel region in a bid to avert an escalation after an ambush Sunday killed one man and wounded three including the mayor of Arsal, security sources told The Daily Star.
Two Syrians from notorious Arsal Mayor Ali Hujeiri’s 15-member convoy were kidnapped but one of them was later released after extensive contacts between Hezbollah and the kidnappers.
“The Army and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel threw their weight behind contacts to contain the incident and spare the Baalbek-Hermel region a major crisis,” a security source said.
Members of the prominent Jaafar and Amhaz clans – who dubbed themselves as the “Brigade of the Four Martyrs” – shot at Hujeiri’s convoy in Labweh as it was returning from Ras Baalbek, where earlier he had overseen an exchange of hostages, the sources said.
The sources linked the ambush to the killing in June of four Lebanese Shiite men in Wadi Rafik on the road linking Labweh to Arsal. Two of the killed men hailed from the Jaafar clan, one from Amhaz, and the fourth one was a Turkish citizen identified as Ali Tarek Oglu.
Hujeiri had said earlier that three Arsal residents – Hasan Hussein Rayed, Omar Ahmad al-Atrash and Sami al-Atrash – were allegedly involved in the quadruple murder, along with several Syrians.
The mayor, who sustained light wounds in the head and the foot during Sunday’s ambush, returned to his home in Arsal after being treated in a Zahle hospital. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri telephoned Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi to discuss the incident in Arsal. Hariri also called Arsal’s mayor, who recounted the incident, Hariri’s media office said.
The head of the Future Movement denounced the attack and stressed the need to not be dragged into civil strife by those who seek to ignite it.
Hariri also stressed the need to take the measures to pursue the perpetrators, noting that the incident was one of many attempts to drag the country into conflict.
Hujeiri’s relative Mohammad Hasan al-Hujeiri – who was in charge of reconciliation efforts between Sunni Arsal and its Shiite surroundings – was killed in the ambush and two Syrian nationals from the border villages of Flita and Maara were kidnapped.
Ahmad Khaled al-Hujeiri and wealthy Syrian business Mohammad Abbas from Maara were wounded in the attack and rushed to Baalbek hospitals.
President Michel Sleiman condemned the ambush, saying it dealt a blow to efforts by security forces to locate two Turkish Airlines pilots kidnapped in Beirut Friday.
“Resorting to such means at a time further complicates the situation and only aggravates the issue, rather than resolves it,” Sleiman said in a statement that also called on security agencies to swiftly arrest perpetrators and put them on trial.
Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, for his part, congratulated Arsal’s mayor for surviving the attack, expressing sorrow for the man killed in the ambush and wishing those wounded a speedy recovery.
In striking contrast with their Shiite neighbors who support embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, residents of Arsal, which borders Syria, strongly support rebels fighting forces loyal to Assad and the town has become a haven for Syrian fighters crisscrossing between the two countries via the porous border.
The attack on the Arsal mayor’s convoy happened hours after Hujeiri oversaw a hostage swap of over a dozen residents from Arsal for a member of the Shiite Moqdad clan. Youssef Moqdad, whose kidnapping last week prompted his kinsman to grab over a dozen Arsal residents, was released to a delegation from Arsal Sunday morning.
The Arsal mayor, who was given custody of Moqdad, headed to Ras Baalbek for the hostage swap, where 16 Arsal residents were released by the Moqdad clan in exchange for their kin.
Mohammad Hasan al-Hujeiri – who was killed in the Sunday ambush – played a pivotal role in brokering the swap deal that brought to a close a spate of retaliatory abductions in the Baalbek-Hermel area, according to the security sources.
Moqdad’s abduction was linked to a probe into the June killing of four Shiites in the area of Wadi Rafik.
According to Hujeiri, Omar al-Atrash kidnapped Moqdad “as a reaction to the investigation.”
The Arsal mayor is wanted by Lebanese authorities for involvement in the killing of two soldiers in the town earlier this year.
Investigative Military Judge Fadi Sawan had announced that he would seek the death penalty against 37 individuals, including the mayor of Arsal, in the killing of Capt. Pierre Bashaalani and 1st Sgt. Ibrahim Zahraman who were ambushed by gunmen while patrolling the town of Arsal on Feb. 2.