Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Lebanon militants hide with refugees

Lebanese forces prepare to enter the Bedawi Palestinian refugee camp to find the Sunni militants responsible for a series of attacks in northern Lebanon.

Beirut // Lebanese security officials said yesterday that they believe the perpetrators of a series of bombings and attacks in northern Lebanon linked to Sunni militants have taken refuge in a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. The Lebanese armed forces have been ordered to begin preparations for a possible assault on the Bedawi refugee camp - home to tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced from the nearby Nahr al Bared camp destroyed last year in fighting between Fatah al Islam, a group of radicals inspired by al Qa'eda, and the Lebanese Army - according to Lebanese intelligence and military officials. "If it's determined there are terrorists operating inside Bedawi, we face regional pressures to contain them," said a top intelligence official, not authorised to speak to the media. "Nothing is imminent," however, he said. Recent activity by Sunni militants around the northern city of Tripoli has thrust Lebanon and Syria into a delicate diplomatic situation as the two countries attempt to establish official diplomatic relations for the first time. Syria has never recognised the independence of its tiny neighbour and occupied Lebanon for almost 30 years before withdrawing its forces in 2005. The two countries have pursued a reconciliation pushed by French diplomats to establish official ties by mid-October. North Lebanon and its heavily Sunni population have seen a significant rise in the influence of fundamentalist groups since a series of spring clashes between the Hizbollah-led opposition and Sunni-dominated government. After Hizbollah clearly defeated the Sunnis in a series of street fights in May, many young Sunnis began looking towards religious groups with experience fighting in Iraq for protection from Hizbollah and Syrian-aligned groups. Tensions between Syria and Lebanon spiked after a series of attacks on Syrian border posts were blamed on Salafist Sunni militants in late September. After Syria responded by bolstering commando units along the border, a series of bombs in Tripoli and Damascus appeared to target both nations' security forces, raising those tensions even further. After last week's bombing in Damascus, which killed at least 17 people, Syria asked France for permission to send troops into northern Lebanon in a limited antiterrorism operation. The request was rebuffed by Paris but, according to Lebanese security sources, a compromise was reached that would force the Lebanese to take offensive action against any radical Sunni groups linked to the violence. The same intelligence and military officials say the investigation indicates that perpetrators of the Tripoli and border attacks have taken refuge with the remnants of Fatah al Islam in the Bedawi camp, which is administered by the United Nations. The sources say it remains unclear if Lebanese militants have ties to the Damascus bombing, but report that al Qa'eda-linked operatives throughout the region could be trying to destabilise northern Lebanon in an effort to replace Iraq as their main operational headquarters. In recent months, there have been multiple statements by al Qa'eda officials as well as postings to several websites associated with the group that call upon its followers to make their way to Lebanon to engage in attacks on the Lebanese military and government. Security officials do not report a rise in arrests of foreigners suspected of jihadi activities but remain deeply concerned in light of the professionalism shown by the Damascus bombing. "These are not amateurs," said a Lebanese military intelligence official. "This operation required time, support and a lot of skill." A UN security official said they had received no warning about a possible army attack on the camp, but said their own intelligence had unearthed several violent plots against foreigners, which led the UN to issue a warning on Friday against unnecessary travel to north Lebanon by foreign UN staff. After a botched bank robbery last year, Lebanese security forces battled members of Fatah al Islam in and around Tripoli before laying siege to the Nahr al Bared camp for three months. Apparently made up of remnants of Salafist militants with experience fighting in Iraq, Fatah al Islam held off the assault for months and the siege eventually killed hundreds on both sides and displaced more than 20,000 people, most of which were moved to the nearby Bedawi camp. Shaker Absi, the leader of the group, is reported to have escaped the siege and been arrested by Syrian intelligence services in Damascus one month ago, according to unconfirmed reports in the Syrian media. Rifaat Ali Eid, who heads the pro-Syrian Arab Democratic Party in Tripoli, spent the summer leading his followers in battle against Sunni militants in a series of summer clashes that killed more than 20 people. He says his community has repeatedly come under threat of bombing and assassination from radical Sunni groups and called for strong action by either Lebanon or Syria. "My opinion is the army should strike with an iron fist and eliminate all signs of terrorism in Lebanon and especially in the north where extremism has been growing," he said. "We just got some information about some political rivals in Lebanon [have] been purchasing stolen cars, guns, heavy, and light weaponry. Things like this can only be used for chaos. If the Lebanese army is weak and [is] a target, [then] we are weak and unprotected. If the army cannot protect us who else will? The Syrians are tired of Lebanese politicians who only talk and talk, with no result for their talking." mprothero@thenational.ae

Updated: October 4, 2008 04:00 AM