BEIRUT: Lebanon has thwarted a plan by the Islamic State group to carry out three suicide bombings targeting Shiite religious compounds in Beirut's southern suburbs, the interior ministry said yesterday. "A terrorist group had recruited young Palestinian men in Lebanon to carry out major bombing attacks using explosive belts" and other munitions, Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told a press conference.

"Three separate targets were to be hit at the same time," the ministry said, in an operation Mawlawi said would have caused significant loss of life. Lebanon's Internal Security Forces (ISF) said the instructions for the bomb plot came from an IS operative based in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, who is in touch with fellow Sunni extremists in Syria.

The instructions were passed to an undercover agent recruited by the ISF to infiltrate IS networks in Lebanon. On Feb 7, the agent was instructed to prepare attacks on a Shiite religious compound in the Al-Laylaki neighborhood, the Imam Al-Kazem compound in Haret Hreik and the Al-Nasser religious center in Beirut's Ouzai suburb, the ISF said. He was given three explosive vests and other weapons to conduct the attacks on Feb 16, the ISF added.

Security forces have since identified four suspected militants residing in the Ain al-Hilweh camp who are believed to have been involved in the bomb plot. Mawlawi said two suspects had been arrested, although he did not specify whether they were among the four identified in Ain al-Hilweh. The camp outside the main southern city of Sidon is the largest Palestinian settlement in Lebanon.

It has gained notoriety as a refuge for extremists and other fugitives. By longstanding convention, the Lebanese army does not enter the country's camps, leaving security inside in the hands of Palestinian factions. Beirut's southern suburbs, a stronghold of Shiite militant group Hezbollah, saw a wave of bombings between 2013 and 2015 carried out by Sunni extremists in retaliation for Hezbollah's intervention in the civil war in neighboring Syria on the side of the Damascus government.

In 2015, twin suicide bombings claimed by IS killed more than 40 people in the area. The latest IS plot came after the group's leader Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi was killed in a US raid on his home in rebel-held northwestern Syria earlier this month. IS operatives asked for a video to be recorded ahead of the planned attack, in which militants said they were carrying it out in Qurashi's honor, the ISF said.

IS is believed to be exploiting an unprecedented financial crisis in Lebanon to lure recruits with the promise of hefty salaries. A security source told AFP this month that around 48 Lebanese from the impoverished northern city of Tripoli have joined IS ranks in Iraq since August. At least eight Tripoli men have been reported killed in Iraq since December.

At the start of February, Iraq's National Security Adviser Qassem Al-Araji said that Lebanese authorities had opened talks with Baghdad over the IS threat. Mawlawi is expected to visit Baghdad soon to discuss Lebanese concerns, he added. "We are following up on the case of Lebanese leaving Tripoli and joining IS in Iraq," Mawlawi said yesterday. "We are monitoring their movements and the movement of their relatives," he added. - AFP