Thu, Apr 16, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Lebanon steps up security checks after soldiers killed

‘LAWLESS REGION’ Four soldiers were killed when their vehicle was attacked in a region ruled by clans and long known as a fertile area for drug production

AFP , BAALBEK, LEBANON

The Lebanese army cordoned off parts of the eastern Bekaa Valley on Tuesday and raided homes of suspected drug lords as it hunted down those behind the killing of four soldiers.

The soldiers were killed when their vehicle was raked with bullets and blasted with a grenade on Monday in an apparent drugs-related ambush in the Bekaa, a lawless region ruled by clans and long known as a fertile drug-­producing area.

Hundreds of troops fanned out between the Bekaa and the Hermel region, further north, setting up checkpoints and raiding the homes of drug barons who for years have operated with near total impunity in the area.

An army spokesman said that the raids would continue until those behind the attack were arrested.

“We will raid every region and every location where we have information on suspects,” he said. “We have raided a number of homes and detained several suspects wanted in previous cases but they don’t include those behind Monday’s attack.”

Several hundred kilograms of poppy seeds used to grow hashish were seized at the home of a suspected drug lord on the run.

The Lebanese army cordoned off al-Sharawni, a neighborhood in the main Bekaa town of Baalbek, and surrounded the home of Hassan Ali Jaafar, a leading suspect in Monday’s ambush.

Jaafar is the brother of Ali Abbas Jaafar, a drug baron who was killed by the army last month after refusing to stop at a checkpoint. He was wanted on a variety of charges, including drug trafficking and attempted murder of soldiers and civilians.

Following his killing, Jaafar’s relatives opened fire at an army vehicle, wounding three soldiers, and Monday’s ambush — which also left a soldier wounded — was widely believed to be a revenge attack.

The Jaafar clan issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the killing of the soldiers but stressed that the army could not raid the homes of “decent people.”

The clan also said that it would not harbor any suspects involved in the ambush.

Many residents of the area had fled their homes after the ambush fearing an escalation between the army and the Jaafar clan, but the situation remained relatively calm on Tuesday.

Lebanese officials, including President Michel Sleiman and Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, vowed the attack against the soldiers, who were buried on Tuesday, would not go unpunished.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also condemned the killings in a telephone call to Sleiman and said he backed the Lebanese army in its bid to maintain stability.

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