BEIRUT: The March 14 coalition said Thursday the Cabinet was responsible for the attempted assassination of MP Butros Harb because it had withheld telecommunications data necessary for security bodies to uncover such plots.
After holding a special meeting at Harb’s residence in Hazmieh, March 14 groups called on the Cabinet – Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement in particular – to allow Internal Security Forces access to mobile phone data.
The parties also called for the attempted assassinations of Harb and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea to be referred the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, formed to try the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, arguing that the cases are part of a string of assassinations and attempts targeting March 14 officials that began in 2004.
Harb, a leading March 14 official, confirmed that he was the target of an assassination attempt following the discovery of explosive detonators on the ceiling of the elevator in a Badaro building where he keeps his law office. The three men suspected of planting the devices escaped.
Harb said in a statement that a physician who has a clinic in the building became suspicious about three people who entered the elevator with him and claimed to be installing an Internet line for the building.
When the physician asked them who the client was, two fled the scene, while the third, who was on top of the elevator’s ceiling, was caught by the physician and the building’s guard, who contacted authorities.
A group of men claiming to be members of Army Intelligence arrived in a black 4x4 and one ushered in the man who was held by the guards, flashing a weapon. It was later discovered that they were imposters and the licence plate, which was recorded by the building’s guards, was fake. Shortly after the man was taken, a car approached from the opposite direction to make sure that the perpetrator escaped.
A security source told The Daily Star that the men were about to connect a bomb to the detonators when they were discovered.
The source added that assassination attempts are increasing as the Telecommunications Ministry refuses to allow access to all telecommunications data, which would equip security forces to monitor suspicious activity.
The source also said that the attempt on Harb’s life is part of a “series of assassinations that have been planned in previous months.”
“This is a serious assassination attempt that targeted MP Harb,” said the source. “It came after the assassination attempt on Samir Geagea.”
In April, Geagea escaped sniper fire at his residence.
Last month, news emerged that former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had received warnings from regional and international parties that he may be the target of an assassination attempt. Metn MP Sami Gemayel, from the Kataeb, was advised by security sources in February to take precautions against a potential assassination attempt.
Military prosecutor Saqr Saqr examined Harb’s office and launched an investigation, while the Army and ISF units examined the scene as well.
Speaking to reporters at his residence in Hazmieh, Harb said Interior Minister Marwan Charbel had confirmed that detonators had been discovered and he was the target of an assassination plot.
“Interior Minister [Marwan Charbel] telephoned me and said he had information that some groups would kill politicians by blowing up elevators,” Harb said.
“Two detonators were found ... they were preparing for it [the bomb], and when preparing they put the bomb away from the detonator so that it would not blow them up,” Charbel said later, after a visit with Harb.
Harb said the attack would not push him to abandon his convictions and that it was the time to seriously address the security deterioration in the country. “We should raise the issue of the proliferation of arms and the political cover that people who carry arms are receiving.”
The interior minister said that simply increasing the number of security forces would not be enough to fully protect politicians. “I cannot protect any figure by more than 50 percent,” he said.
Charbel also said that security bodies are currently receiving incomplete telecommunications data.
“But given an incident such as today’s, complete telecommunications data should be provided to seriously investigate the assassination attempt,” he added.
Top leaders and officials reached out to Harb, expressing relief that he had escaped unharmed.
President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri Prime Minister Najib Mikati, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Angelina Eichhorst, head of the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon, as well as others spoke with Harb following the incident.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri expressed his relief in a telephone call with Harb and discussed with him the available information on the assassination. Hariri condemned the “criminal” act and said he stands in solidarity with Harb.
In a statement later, the Future Movement leader said that the attempt on Harb’s life is a clear indication that the risk of assassinations is back.
“This criminal act confirms that the risk of political assassinations is back in the Lebanese arena, and that the information received by some politicians and leaders, specifically from the March 14 forces, reminds us of the wave of crimes that targeted these figures and claimed the lives of great national, political and media symbols,” Hariri said.
A host of ministers, along with MPs from the rival March 8 and March 14 camps, also called Harb, and many politicians and supporters gathered at the lawmaker’s residence to express solidarity.
For his part, Geagea said it was unacceptable that authorities have been unable to identify those behind the series of assassinations and assassination attempts targeting March 14 officials since 2005.
Addressing a news conference at his residence in Maarab, Geagea held the Cabinet responsible for the attempt on Harb’s life since it is not providing security bodies with essential telecommunications data.
“Data is a major tool to find those behind crimes in all countries except for Lebanon,” he said.
“What is happening is abnormal and this Cabinet is abnormal,” Geagea added. The LF leader said the best thing the Cabinet could do to serve Lebanon is to resign. – With additional reporting by Dana Khraiche