Lebanon charges 5 Syrians in spread of war across border


McClatchy Foreign Staff

Lebanese prosecutors charged five Syrians this week in attacks earlier this year on targets related to the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah. Although the two cases – a bombing and a rocket attack – remain legally unconnected, they suggest that Lebanese authorities are reaching conclusions about who’s responsible for violence in the country related to the civil war in Syria.

On Tuesday, authorities charged two men with planning and executing the roadside bombing of a Hezbollah convoy June 23 that killed at least one member of the group on the main highway linking Syria and Lebanon. That was followed Wednesday with Military Examining Magistrate Fadi Sawan issuing arrest warrants for three men in connection with a rocket attack May 26 on southern Beirut neighborhoods, near Hezbollah’s headquarters, that wounded four.

The aggressive action from Lebanon’s military tribunal system, which tends to handle political cases and terrorism, comes as this tiny country wedged uncomfortably between Israel and Syria struggles to maintain order while much of its population takes increasingly bitter sides in the 30-month Syrian war.

Lebanese news organizations reported that a man who was killed by an explosion Monday was an active-duty Syrian army officer who was visiting his brother in Lebanon.

Syrian groups have been linked to – or widely accused of – four car bombings: two that targeted neighborhoods in Beirut known for their staunch support of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, and two that struck mosques in the northern city of Tripoli that were known for vocal support of the rebels.

Western and Lebanese officials have said they think that a specific group of Syrian rebels has been tasked by its leaders with punishing Hezbollah’s communities and backers for the group’s military support for the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence information. They also declined to identify the group they were referring to.

The men charged in the June 23 attack were identified as Amer and Moutasem Hamdan, who appear to be related, though there were conflicting accounts of their relationship. The two reportedly are from the suburbs of Damascus, Syria’s capital, and a Lebanese judicial official, who cannot be named under Lebanese law, said Amer Hamdan had confessed under interrogation to being a member of “a Syrian terrorist organization.” Moutasem Hamdan remains at large and is thought to be still in Lebanon.

Two of the three men ordered arrested Wednesday also appear to be related. They were indentified as Mohammed and Ghayyath Qarhathan. The third man was identified as Omar al Dirani.

Western and Lebanese intelligence officials have said previously that they think that at least some rocket attacks and the first car bombing in southern Beirut were conducted by a cell of the Syrian rebel organization Liwa 313, which military analysts have described as a special operations group under the command of the U.S.-backed Syrian Military Council. But some Lebanese authorities and Hezbollah members tend to refer to any attack on Shiites in Lebanon as being directed by the Nusra Front, an anti-Assad al Qaida affiliate.

Nusra and another al Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both Sunni Muslim groups, have employed violent sectarian imagery directed at Hezbollah in videos posted on the Internet. The Syrian Military Council, also overwhelmingly Sunni, is seen as less sectarian but equally interested in punishing Hezbollah for involving itself in Syria, particularly for the group’s role in the capture from rebels of Qusayr, a city near the Lebanese border.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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