BEIRUT/QAA, Lebanon: The Lebanese government warned yesterday of a heightened terrorist threat after eight suicide bombers targeted a Christian village at the border with Syria, the latest spillover of its conflict into Lebanon. The village of Qaa was targeted on Monday in two waves of suicide attacks that killed five people. The first group of bombers attacked before dawn and the second later at night, two of them blowing themselves up near a church.
Security officials believe Islamic State militants were behind the attack. There has been no claim of responsibility. In reference to the number of attackers, the Lebanese government said the attack and the “unfamiliar way” it was carried out represented a new phase of “confrontation between the Lebanese state and evil terrorism”. Prime Minister Tammam Salam “expressed his fear that what happened in Qaa is the start of a new wave of terrorist operations in different areas of Lebanon,” Information Minister Ramzi Jreij said in televised comments after a cabinet meeting.
Sunni Islamist militants have repeatedly struck in Lebanon since the eruption of the war in neighboring Syria, where the powerful Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah is fighting in support of President Bashar Al-Assad. Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, speaking from Qaa, said most of the attackers had come from inside Syria, and not refugee camps hosting Syrian refugees who number more than 1 million in Lebanon according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
Local authorities imposed curfews on Syrian refugees in the area following the attacks. The Lebanese army said it had mounted dawn raids on Syrian refugee camps, detaining 103 people for being illegally present in the country. The majority of Syrian refugees have no legal status in Lebanon due to the complications and costs of obtaining or renewing residency rights under rules imposed by the Lebanese government, aid agencies say.
In Qaa, residents armed with assault rifles fanned out in the streets for several hours yesterday, citing the need to protect the area. They later dispersed when the army asked them to go home. The head of the Qaa local council had on Monday night urged residents to shoot anyone suspicious. Security sources said Hezbollah deployed dozens of armed men in nearby villages to help secure the area. “We are not leaving for sure, we are staying here … we are not afraid. We are not leaving our land,” Maher Rizk, a cafe owner, said.
Qaa lies on a main road linking the Syrian town of Al-Qusayr to Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley. Its 3,000 residents are predominantly Christian, but the Masharia Al-Qaa district is home to Sunni Muslims and some 30,000 Syrian refugees live in a makeshift camp on the edge of the village. “The army has deployed a large force to Masharia Al-Qaa and is carrying out widespread searches in the displacement camps, looking for weapons or wanted people,” the state National News Agency reported.
Show of Force
“The whole village is mobilizing. Everyone – men and women – are sitting in front of their homes to protect them after the terror that we lived yesterday,” said local official Mansur Saad. One man with silver-grey hair and clad in a black vest poured himself a small cup of coffee, his assault rifle lying in his lap. Several women strolled through the street and posed in front of cameras, smiling and gingerly carrying weapons. “We haven’t been scared or terrified like that in our whole lives,” said resident Yola Saad. “All the guys from the village came out with their guns to protect their neighborhoods,” she added.
Salam urged residents not to take up arms and to leave the military work to the security forces. In Baalbek, an eastern city known for its ancient ruins, soldiers “carried out raids in the refugee camp… and arrested 103 Syrians who were on Lebanese territory illegally,” an army statement said. Lebanon is host to more than one million Syrian refugees, roughly a quarter of the small Mediterranean country’s population.
Hezbollah has set up informal checkpoints along the road to Baalbek area “to search cars,” a Hezbollah official told AFP.. Suicide blasts in the area have typically targeted checkpoints or military installations and rarely included more than one attacker. In Aug 2014, the army clashed with the IS and Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, in the border town of Arsal. – AFP