Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 January 2000
Issue No. 464
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Islamists on a rampage in Lebanon

By Ranwa Yehia

The eve of the re-launching of peace talks between Syria and Israel has been marked in Lebanon by battles between government forces and Islamist militants in the north, and an attack on the Russian embassy in Beirut.

A senior political source said that although different groups were responsible for the incidents in the Dinnieh district in northern Lebanon and in the Corniche Al-Mazraa neighbourhood in the Lebanese capital where the Russian embassy is located, the two events ultimately served the same political goal: "creating turmoil to harm the peace process".

In Corniche Al-Mazraa, the assailant was a Palestinian from the Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp near the southern city of Sidon who had adopted the cause of Chechen rebels in their struggle against Moscow.

The residential and commercial district was transformed into a battlefield on 3 January when Ahmed Raja Abu Kharroub launched rocket-propelled grenades onto the Russian embassy, killing a policeman and injuring eight others before he was killed. At least two civilians were also injured.

Police said Abu Kharroub, 30, carried a statement which said that he wanted to be a martyr for Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.

Fears in the Lebanese capital due to the attack on the Russian embassy were exacerbated by the presence of army troops setting up checkpoints in streets throughout Beirut.

Officials in Beirut refused to link the attack on the Russian embassy to the clashes that erupted in Dinnieh on the last day of 1999 and continued for several days.

Nearly 1,500 troops, including special forces, charged into the mountains of Dinnieh, east of the northern port city of Tripoli, in an attempt to dislodge a group of at least 150 heavily armed Sunni Muslim guerrillas from their mountain hideouts. Ten soldiers and 11 militants have been killed since the clashes began.

The guerrillas were hiding on a plateau that is riddled with caves, paths and goat tracks, ideal territory for ambushes while providing escape routes into nearby mountains which reach over 3,000 metres. Fighting began when an army patrol was ambushed in the village of Assoun in Dinnieh by the rebels, said to be a stronghold of the banned fundamentalist group Al-Takfeer Wal-Hijra (Excommunication and Migration). Four members of the ambushed patrol were killed and two were wounded. Additionally, Major Milad Naddaf and a sergeant were both captured by the rebels and later killed.

Sources said that tensions emerged in the district a few days prior to the clashes when the guerrillas began parading their weapons in public, alarming the residents of nearby Christian villages. Local politicians, including the member of parliament for the Akkar district and Jamaa Islamiya official Khaled Daher, attempted to calm the situation but instead found themselves trapped in Assoun as the fighting began.

Security sources said the Al-Takfeer Wal-Hijra is headed by a Lebanese veteran of the struggle in Afghanistan against the Russian occupation who is known among his supporters as Abu Aisheh. The group is widely suspected of being behind a series of church bombings in Tripoli in recent months, as well as attacks against shops selling alcohol.

In 1994, they tried to blow up a carload of Serbian Christian bishops heading to a conference at Balamand University also in northern Lebanon. However, the Dinnieh incident is their most serious action since the end of the civil war in 1990.

Lebanon's two leading Sunni politicians, Prime Minister Salim Al-Hoss and former Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, condemned the insurgency and expressed support for the army.

Hoss issued a statement saying that "all Lebanese condemn the cowardly attack on the army perpetrated by armed men" and praised the "martyrs" of the armed forces.

Officials continued to deny there was a link between the Russian embassy bombing and clashes in the north, despite the fact that they share a common factor: both are made up of fundamentalist groups that might feel threatened by the possibility of a settlement in the region.

One political source did not rule out the possibility that the timing for the attack on the Russian embassy could have been chosen because the army was preoccupied with developments in the north. Moreover, such events have greater impact when they occur in the capital.

Meanwhile, a senior security source said the country's security personnel "are on alert for an undetermined period of time," and will make all necessary efforts to prevent a repeat of such incidents.

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