TRIPOLI: Residents of this embattled city prepared for stormy days ahead as sporadic violence strained the peace and a senior preacher promised to take the law into his own hands if men accused of orchestrating two deadly car bombs back in August were not arrested.
Occasional sniper fire along the front lines between the predominantly Alawite Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni-majority Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods cracked the tenuous cease-fire and was answered by Lebanese Army troops in the area.
The gunfire sparked fears among residents of a return to the clashes that racked the city in recent days despite an attempt by the Army and security agencies to impose security on the warring neighborhoods.
Two masked gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire Friday on Issa Taha, an Army soldier in the Al-Tall neighborhood. He was transferred to a local hospital for treatment.
Movement was limited in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh with the return of sniper fire.
Many vegetable stall owners closed shop in the afternoon.
Areas further away from the front line were relatively quiet amid heightened security measures including checkpoints and patrols throughout the city.
These measures were particularly intense around the city’s mosques during the Friday prayers.
Sheikh Salem Rifai, the imam of Al-Taqwa Mosque, urged patience in anticipation of the government’s efforts to arrest the perpetrators of two car bombings that rocked Tripoli in August, but said that if the state failed to carry out its duties, “we will take our rights with our hands.”
Rifaat Eid of the Arab Democratic Party, members of whom are suspects in the bombings, said Friday that a joint committee should be formed to probe the deadly bombings, a day after his father defied a summons order in the case.
“A joint committee should include Army Intelligence, the Military Tribunal, the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch and General Security to supervise the investigations [into the Tripoli bombings],” Eid, who heads the ADP’s political affairs department, told Al-Jadeed television.
He also reiterated his mistrust for the Information Branch of the ISF, stating he would not object to any other security agency handling the case.
“We ask today to transfer the file to any [state institution] other than the Information Branch,” he said.
Rifaat’s father, Ali Eid, a prominent figure in the Alawite community, has been summoned in the case, after his driver allegedly confessed to helping a suspect in the case flee the country.
Preliminary investigations by the police’s Information Branch indicate that some of the suspects in the August Tripoli bombings have links to the ADP and Syrian Army Intelligence.
Eid, the secretary-general of the ADP, defied Thursday the summons, raising tensions in the city only days after a week of deadly clashes.
Leaders from Lebanon’s Alawite community accuse the Information Branch of bias and affiliation with their rivals in the Future Movement.
The ADP has denied any role in the bombings that killed at least 47 people and wounded scores more.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati urged everyone in Tripoli to abide by the rule of law and stressed the need to complete the investigations into the bombings.
“No one should consider himself stronger than the state. Whatever happens, the state’s authority is stronger than everyone and we should all be under the rule of the law,” Mikati said after meeting a delegation of Tripoli MPs. “We urge the authorities to arrest all of those who planned, executed and participated in this cowardly act.”
A militia leader in Bab al-Tabbaneh said the ADP’s defiance had undermined the Army’s security plan, saying his area was constantly in danger of being attacked with sniper fire and bombs.
If Eid continues to defy the summons, the judiciary will deliver a subpoena in person to his home.
Afterward, a notice summoning Eid will be posted on the wall of the military tribunal in Beirut, and will be considered the final warning that paves the way to issuing a search warrant and a possible in absentia trial.
Judicial sources are remaining tight-lipped on Rifaat Eid’s public pronouncements because they do not wish to enter into a public rhetorical battle with the ADP official.
While the judiciary is ready to receive information gleaned by the ADP, it is unlikely to consider any demands to switch the investigation over to another security agency besides the ISF, which led the investigation from the start.
A judicial source said that military prosecutor Saqr Saqr, who is handling the case, would not cave to pressure, and that he personally supervised interrogations to ensure that any confessions were not coerced.
A judicial source told The Daily Star that investigators were able to identify individuals who helped orchestrate the car bombings through video recordings obtained from cameras at the house of former ISF chief Ashraf Rifi, who lives across from Al-Taqwa Mosque, one of the car bomb targets.
Subsequent confessions and audio recordings confirmed Eid’s complicity in helping Merhi flee Lebanon.
ADP official Abdullatif Saleh told The Daily Star that the party had evidence which would be revealed soon in the Tripoli car bombings case, and which would alter the course of investigations and accusations.
Saleh said the Alawite community was being targeted through the accusations against Eid, “its most important symbol.”
The ADP declined to elaborate on the nature of the evidence it claimed to possess. The party also declined to comment on why it had not revealed the information before.
The ISF responded Friday to allegations made by the ADP against the security agency, saying the driver told them twice that Eid had tasked him with helping one of the suspects in the Tripoli bombings flee the country.
“Preliminary investigations with Ahmad Ali, the driver of Ali Eid, in which he clearly confessed that Eid had asked him to help Ahmad Merhi escape were not carried out by the Information Branch. But he did make the same confession to the branch after his referral [from Army Intelligence],” the ISF said in the statement.
Merhi was arrested near the border with Syria by Army Intelligence personnel last month.
He was then referred to the Information Branch by Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr.
The ISF also said that Ali Eid’s summons was a judicial order, urging him to come forward with information about the bombings.