BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri Monday threw his weight fully behind the Lebanese Army after it came under criticism from human rights groups and Syrian opposition parties over the death of four Syrian detainees while in its custody. He stressed that the military investigation into the death of the four Syrians is beyond doubt.Hariri also strongly opposed Hezbollah’s reported plans to launch a military operation to oust militant groups holed up on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal near the border with Syria.
His remarks came amid rising confusion and speculation around the circumstances that led to the death of the four Syrians following the Army’s pre-emptive strike on June 30 against militant groups in two Syrian refugee encampments in Arsal.
In the operation during which the Army detained some 360 militant suspects, five suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing one refugee girl and wounding seven soldiers. Four Syrian detainees died while in Army custody. The Army has said in a statement that they died from pre-existing health conditions.
“The Army carried out a very successful and large operation, and if it had not, there would have been a big problem in the country because the bombs were intended to blow up Lebanon,” Hariri told reporters after meeting with Army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun and Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf at the Grand Serail. “The Lebanese Army entered a camp that hosts 10,000 people and carried out a big operation and thank God, there were no injuries among the civilians. The Lebanese Army discovered that there was a big calculated plan [to destabilize Lebanon].”
The meeting with Sarraf and Aoun addressed the security situation in light of measures implemented by the Army in various Lebanese territories, a statement from Hariri’s media office said.
The Army chief carried with him documents explaining the circumstances surrounding the death of the four Syrians. Referring to the deaths, Hariri said, “The Army is conducting a clear and transparent investigation into this issue and no one should doubt it because the Lebanese Army is keener on the security of the citizens and civilians than anyone else is.” He added that he would receive the results of the Army investigation in the coming days.Hariri scoffed at attempts to create tension between politicians and the Army Command, saying that the military is working day and night to protect Lebanon from terrorist attacks. “Also, questioning the investigation carried out by the Army Command is unacceptable,” he said.
Hariri disclosed that on several occasions the Army abandoned missions aimed at arresting suspected terrorists due to the presence of civilians.
Apparently responding criticism of the Army by some Syrian opposition groups following the death of the four Syrians, the premier voiced unconditional support for the military. “For me, political support for the Lebanese Army is unconditional and I emphasize that the Army Command is always keen on protecting the civilians,” he said. “The Army is above any suspicion and to those trying to fish in murky water I say do not even try.”
A Syrian opposition source said a memo would be presented to the United Nations on the status of Syrian refugees in Arsal. The issue of refugees in Arsal has been at the discussion table of the High Negotiations Committee during the peace talks that began in Geneva Monday between the Syrian government and opposition, a source from the HNC’s media office told The Daily Star. He declined to disclose details of the memo.
Hariri dismissed reports that he had summoned the Army chief over the death of the four Syrians. “In fact, I am in continuous contact with him and we consult by phone or meet more than four times per week. Today we met and it was covered by the media but we often meet without any media,” he said. “Today I wanted the media to cover this meeting because there is confusion and attempts to sow discord in the country.”
“So let no one be skeptical about this issue or put us in a place that neither we nor the Army want. There is a transparent investigation being carried out by the Army and the Army has our total political support,” Hariri added.
Asked if he supported a Hezbollah battle to liberate Arsal’s outskirts from Daesh (ISIS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, previously known as the Nusra Front, Hariri said, “Certainly not.”
He added that the government and the Army are united “in the face of any attempt to destabilize the country.”
Hezbollah, which is deeply involved in the 6-year-old war in Syria, signaled last week it was gearing up for a military operation to evict members of the two militant groups holed up in Arsal’s rugged outskirts.
Asked to comment on Hezbollah’s reported preparations for the Arsal battle, Hariri said: “We are in constant contact with all the political parties and the Army Command because this is the duty of the government. I do not want to discuss what the Army will or will not do or when. ... Our duty as a Lebanese government is to protect the Lebanese citizens and the refugees.”
On whether the government would eventually give the Army the green light to liberate Arsal’s outskirts, Hariri said: “The Army has total political support to resolve matters, but we have to know that there are civilians in the camps and the problem is that the terrorists are using the civilians to protect themselves just as happened with the child who was killed because the terrorist used her as a shield.
“The Army knows what to do. When the Army is certain that carrying out any operation will not hurt civilians, the defense minister and the Army commander are aware that they have the political decision to carry out any operation at the time they deem appropriate.”
Meanwhile, the Army said in a statement that 20 Syrian detainees have so far been referred to the judiciary for their involvement in terrorist acts.
“And 152 detainees were handed over to the Directorate General of General Security for their illegal presence in the country, while 23 others were released for lack of evidence [of crimes],” the statement said.
Separately, MP Walid Jumblatt spoke with Hariri by phone Monday night in an icebreaking contact following tension between the two leaders over key issues, such as the government’s electricity reform plan and the negotiations over a new electoral law. Also, Hariri had appeared to accuse Jumblatt of corruption in one of his speeches last month.
During the phone contact, Hariri and Jumblatt discussed a number of issues, Jumblatt’s office said, without providing further details.