Lebanese former minister arrested, potential bomb plot backed by Syria

Although it sounds like a story out of a James Bond film, this is the drama which has been unfolding over the last few days. Yesterday, LIBANCALL, the update service on my phone went haywire with message flooding in about the arrest of former minister Michel Samaha in relation to a bomb plot . Official sources so far have only stated that it was in relation to a security situation, unrelated to collaboration with Israel or the UN backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon which is prosecuting the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Samaha was arrested in his pyjamas at 8 am yesterday morning, and his secretary, driver and bodyguard have also been called in for questioning. Explosives were picked up in raids at 20 locations across the country. Samaha’s residences and offices were raided and $170 000 in cash was found.

The pro-Assad politician, it is said he is responsible for Assad’s PR in Europe, has a tumultuous past; he was banned from travelling to the US In 2007 on charges of “conspiring with the Syrian regime to create instability in Lebanon” according to the Daily Star, a local newspaper. Old habits die hard, apparently, as his arrest yesterday was on account of the same according to sources speaking to the Daily Star.

Most of the reporting on the subject until now involves unnamed sources, but here is the story so far.

According to the Daily Star, which his owned by the Hariri family and thus aligned with Samaha’s political opponents March 14, Samaha has admitted to a plot to carry out bomb attacks in Northern Lebanon to cause instability, and even personally transferred explosives from Syria to Lebanon. As to why the plot was being hatched in the first place, “this is what Assad wants” is a quote being attributed to Samaha on an alleged video of the dealings, provided by somebody involved in the plots who turned against the former minister. This source, a member of the Kfour family, has now been flown out of the country on account of his safety.

This being Lebanon, the saga is not causing the reactions one would expect. Most politicians, usualy eager to talk, have remained silent on the case. There has been hardly any outrage at the former cabinet member planning such a grave offence in his own nation, except for those who equalled the treason to being worse than collaborating with Israel

Christian religious leaders condemned the manner of the arrest, saying it was undignified.

The arrest was carried out by the Internal Security Forces, widely believed to be Sunni and by extension anti-Assad, like the March 14th coalition which now forms the opposition. The Lebanese government is currently headed by March 8, a pro-Syria alliance which includes Hezbollah, who were swift to condemn the attack saying it was based on fabrications.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s sectarian press is going into overdrive to find a  reason behind the arrest. All reports were heavy on Samaha’s widow, who still filtered who she spoke with, refusing to talk to journalists from NOW Lebanon (a March 14 publication).  As stated above, the Daily Star is carrying the juiciest side of the story, so far. Al-Akhbar, a newspaper allied with March 8, the coalition Samaha belongs to at the moment (though his allegiances shift as his track record shows) has called the move “bold and mysterious“, claiming it was solely due to Samaha’s close connection with Assad. In the same article, Falangists said the arrest was only because Samaha was a Christian with little political backing.  The fact that if he had political backing he would not be arrested, is the more worrying assumption; surely a plot to bomb your own country warrants arrest.

So far, there are no statements on why Samaha was arrested exactly, watch this space, but the arrest is yet another sign of the effect Syria’s conflict is having on its small neighbour. Always a hive of foreign interference, Syria is eager to push Lebanon to stop the Free Syrian Army from operating in its Northern regions. Although nothing is confirmed yet, placing a bomb would be a reason for a stronger Army presence in that region, which is something Assad would definitely want.

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