HERMEL, Lebanon: The gunmen who attacked the Arsal mayor and his convoy have vowed to hunt him down, a source close to the so-called “Brigade of the Four Martyrs” told The Daily Star Monday. The attack Sunday on the convoy belonging to the notorious Arsal mayor, Ali Hujeiri, was claimed by the Brigade of the Four Martyrs, a previously unknown group named in honor of four young men who were killed in an ambush in Wadi Rafik on the Arsal-Labweh road in June.
The brigade said that the attempt on the mayor’s life was carried out in “revenge” for the Wadi Rafik killing of the four young men, two of whom hailed from the Jaafar clan and a third from the Amhaz clan. The fourth victim was a Turkish national.
The source also revealed that this was not the group’s first attempt to kill the mayor, and that they had intended to use heavier artillery and rockets but changed their mind due to the traffic on the road due to Eid al-Fitr.
The source added that the Brigade was determined to pursue the mayor along with others they considered responsible for the crime.
“We will never let him rest,” a masked leader claiming to speak for the group told Al-Jadeed TV Monday. “If I die, my sons will carry on.”
Relations between the mostly Sunni town of Arsal and its Shiite neighbors have deteriorated drastically in recent months, with a string of tit-for-tat kidnappings and several murders that appear sectarian and political in nature.
In the Al-Jadeed interview, the leader of the brigade sidestepped a question about whether the group was acting on behalf of a specific family, claiming to represent “all the people of the area.”
Hujeiri suffered minor injuries as a result of Sunday’s attack, but his relative, Mohammad Hasan Hujeiri, was killed. A Syrian national who had also been in the mayor’s convoy was briefly kidnapped and later released unharmed.
Mayor Hujeiri has denied any connection to the Wadi Rafik killings, even going as far as to release the names of the men he claims are responsible. Hujeiri is wanted by Lebanese authorities for his alleged role in an unrelated ambush on a Lebanese Army patrol on Feb. 2 that left two soldiers and one suspect dead.
The Amhaz family released a statement Monday placing “full responsibility” for Sunday’s attack on Hujeiri, whom the statement accused of moving through the family’s territory fully armed in a “provocative manner” after failing to hand over the suspects in the Wadi Rafik attack.
The families of the slain men claim Arsal is giving refuge to the perpetrators.
Local and national officials appealed for calm Monday, warning against the dangers of being drawn into open sectarian confrontation.
Monday morning, a delegation from the March 14 Forces, including MPs Jamal Jarrah and Assem Araji, visited the town of Arsal, where they met with the mayor and other local leaders and paid their respects at the home of the deceased.
Speaking on behalf of the delegation, Jarrah appealed to the people of Arsal to avoid falling prey to the “scheme” intended to trap them by drawing them into “sectarian division.”
The residents of Arsal, represented by Hujeiri and local leaders, as well as some politicians, have called into question the Army and the media’s version of February’s ambush in which Capt. Pierre Bashaalani and First Sgt. Ibrahim Zahraman were killed.
“Obviously there is a specific side behind this scheme which is working day and night to sow division by fabricating events and ambushes in Arsal,” Jarrah said.
He stressed that it was the responsibility of the state and the Army to arrest the criminals and bring them to justice, adding that while the perpetrators were known to the townspeople, their backers remained in hiding.
Jarrah also stressed the importance of “remaining in the same trench” as the Lebanese Army and the state.
Hujeiri said Sunday’s attack was an “organized, planned and politically motivated” attempt to kill him over his support for the Syrian opposition.
Hujeiri went on to accuse Hezbollah of being behind the ambush, rejecting the notion that it was linked to the killing of the four young men in Wadi Rafik. Al-Jadeed’s interview with the confessed attackers aired after Hujeiri made his comments.
Hujeiri emphasized Arsal’s support for the state, urging authorities to arrest the criminals and bring them to justice.
For his part, the mayor of Labweh, Ramez Amhaz, denied that the family was responsible for the ambush on the convoy, dismissing the attack as a “spontaneous reaction” by “some individuals” to the presence of the controversial mayor amid simmering tensions.
Amhaz went on to point out that the attack did not even target those directly responsible for the Wadi Rafik ambush, although he did cast doubt on the mayor’s commitment to upholding the rule of law.
“How is it that the mayor of Arsal, who has been sentenced to death, can walk into an Army Intelligence office without being arrested?” Amhaz asked. Investigative Military Judge Fadi Sawan had announced he would seek the death penalty against 37 individuals implicated in the Feb. 2 attack, including the mayor, but no verdict has been issued.
The mayor’s convoy came under fire just hours after he oversaw a hostage exchange between Arsal and the Moqdad family, another powerful Shiite clan.
Last week, the Moqdad family kidnapped over a dozen residents of Arsal after their own Youssef Moqdad was taken near Arsal.
Mohammad Hujeiri, who reportedly played a pivotal role in negotiating the exchange, was laid to rest at noon Monday in the presence of his family and local dignitaries and clergy.
The Lebanese Army continued to patrol on the road between Labweh and Arsal Monday in an effort to contain the aftermath of the incident.