x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Baalbek tribe repels botched Lebanon army raid

A gun battle between the army and a Baalbek tribe left at least 10 people wounded, including six soldiers.

A poster salutes the dead Baalbek fighters, including the suspected drug baron Ali Abbas Jaafar, left, in the Hay al Sharawneh neighbourhood of Baalbek near a Lebanese army checkpoint.
A poster salutes the dead Baalbek fighters, including the suspected drug baron Ali Abbas Jaafar, left, in the Hay al Sharawneh neighbourhood of Baalbek near a Lebanese army checkpoint.

BAALBEK // A botched raid by the Lebanese army on a neighbourhood controlled by a Baalbek tribe known for its involvement in the hashish and drugs trade nearly turned catastrophic after a gun battle between the army and the clan left at least 10 people wounded, including six soldiers.

Members of the Jaafar clan, one of the largest families in Lebanon's lawless northern Beqaa Valley, claim that army commandos entered the Hay al Sharawneh neighbourhood, known as a stronghold for the family's more than 20,000 members, shortly after 2pm on April 16, as children were returning from school and began to indiscriminately fire on houses and passersby. Several people were wounded. "They were walking up and down our streets, wildly firing into the windows of people's homes; they were treating us like animals," said Abu Ali Jaafar, a witness and combatant in the afternoon firefight.

Mr Jaafar was able to show a journalist video taken by a camera phone that appeared to show Lebanese army soldiers randomly firing into homes from the main streets in the neighbourhood. However, the video then changed to show Mr Jaafar and several of his colleagues firing automatic weapons and grenades into a nearby army checkpoint a few minutes later. "They came to raid the neighbourhood, looking for Hassan Jaafar," explained Abu Mohammed Jaafar, a tribal elder.

"But instead of professionally acting like an army, they ... acted like just another Lebanese militia," he said. "They were worse than the Israelis. So our tribe responded with a counter-attack." The Jaafar family is legendary for "counter-attacking" when the tribe feels revenge is merited: the tense situation between the family and the government developed just over a year ago after Ali Abbas Jaafar, a suspected drug baron with more than 150 warrants issued for his arrest, was killed in disputed circumstances on a road just outside Baalbek in March 2009.

Less than a month later, his brother Hassan and others attacked an army convoy, which included the officer who led the attack on his brother, killing four soldiers and critically wounding the officer. According to an army statement, the latest round of violence began after an attempt to arrest a suspect in last year's attack on the army patrol was met by gun and grenade fire. Families in the neighbourhood and the combatants themselves argue that they were provoked into their violent response not only by the behaviour of the army units but the constant sense of occupation inflicted on them by military forces in the area. The Lebanese army refused to discuss the matter despite repeated attempts.

The sense of domestic occupation is highlighted shortly after passing one of the three heavily fortified checkpoints that control access to the Hay al Sharawneh neighbourhood to maintain control over the residents. Here, the Lebanese army appears to have deployed more tanks, artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns than can be seen along the border with Israel. And just past one checkpoint, graffiti on the walls of bullet-riddled middle-class homes reads: "Welcome to Camp Fallujah", a reference to the violent occupation of that Iraqi city by US troops from 2003 to 2008. Inside one of the houses, several young men gathered, smoking hashish and discussing the conditions they lived under as young members of Lebanon's most notorious tribe.

"OK, I very much like hashish," said Abu Ali Jaafar, 20, whose thin frame and stylish hair belies the 55 court warrants the Lebanese government has issued against him. "And it has been my family tradition to grow and sell hashish since the time before the Ottoman empire. The government offers us nothing in return for stopping but is this a crime you can just murder us for?" "Not all of us are criminals," shouted a middle-aged woman who had been listening. She was quickly identified as having been in the car when Ali Abbas was killed and denied that he ran a roadblock.

"We were just driving along when the bullets slammed into the car, killing the men in the front. I was in the back with my babies. I was wounded in the stomach and they were cut by glass. When I opened my eyes and saw the Lebanese army, I said, 'Thank God' because I thought they were there to save us from the criminals shooting at us. Then one cursed me and put his boot on my neck." Furiously, she waved her cigarette in one hand as the hashish-smoking youth in the room tried to calm her. "They are murderers. We will kill them if they come back."

Her son, Hadi, said she had not been the same since witnessing the shooting, a pressure shared by the family. "I'm in university, I don't want to tell you where," he explained, "but when the professors find your name is Jaafar, they're either scared of you or fail you out of their class. I want to study law; I have no warrants out for me like Abu Ali does, but there's almost no hope. So during the attack, I joined in and fought."

He then grinned mischievously. "I hope they don't come back." @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae