Lebanon targets Islamic radicals

Pressured by the US, Arab countries are arresting dozens of Islamic militants, some with Al Qaeda ties.

Lebanon has arrested dozens of Islamic militants accused of mounting a series of bomb attacks against Western targets and plotting to assassinate the United States ambassador to Beirut.

The crackdown on Islamic radicals comes as Lebanon and its political master, Syria, face unprecedented pressure from the United States over their support for militant anti-Israel groups such as Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas.

Six suspected Islamists were picked up over the weekend, raising the number of detained to at least 45 since the wave of arrests began nearly two weeks ago. The six men, including one handed over by Syrian security officials, stand accused of "belonging to a terrorist group" and "committing terrorist acts."

The first arrests were announced May 7, four days after a visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who urged Beirut and Damascus to halt support for Hizbullah and radical Palestinian movements.

The latest arrests come as the Arab world is experiencing a spate of suicide bomb attacks. At least 70 people, including an estimated 22 attackers, have been killed in the past week in multiple bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

In response, Western countries have issued a series of terror alerts covering parts of Africa and southeast Asia, and at least two airlines have suspended flights to Kenya.

In Saudi Arabia, authorities investigating the May 12 attacks in Riyadh detained four suspects over the weekend. Interior Minister Prince Nayef told reporters he believed the suspects belonged to Al Qaeda. Mr. Nayef added at a press conference Sunday that US investigators had come to examine the sites, and "we welcomed them based on that, for examining only."

In another incident, a man with a gun was arrested Monday outside the US Consulate in Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia.

In Morocco, government agents staged raids Sunday in pursuit of bombing suspects, detaining dozens around the country. The government said that it had identified eight of the attackers, all of whom were Moroccan.

Lebanon's antimilitant fight

Some of the detained Islamists in Lebanon are thought to be members of Al-Takfir wal-Hijra - Repentance and Flight - a small but extremist Islamic organization that has been linked to the Al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden. It is being held responsible for a number of bomb attacks against Western fast-food restaurants in Beirut and Tripoli in northern Lebanon in recent months. Last week, Maroun Zakhour, the Lebanese military prosecutor, claimed that some of the detained radicals had plotted to kill US Ambassador Vincent Battle by attacking his motorcade with rocket-propelled grenades while he visited Tripoli in January. The Islamists were also accused of planning bomb attacks against the US Embassy.

A concocted campaign?

However, the timing of the crackdown has raised suspicions that the alleged plots have been "manufactured" in order to please Washington.

"I am very skeptical that there was this big plot," says one analyst who requested anonymity. "They announce with great fanfare that they have broken up a ring and then we hear nothing more about it. I suspect it could be some way to show the Americans that they are acting [against terrorism]. But there is very little to go on. No evidence has been produced."

According to a former Lebanese intelligence officer, Lebanon was instructed by Syria in January to prepare for an arrest campaign against Islamic militants. The campaign, however, was put on hold, only to be resurrected after the US stepped up pressure on Syria in April to dismantle Hizbullah, shut down the Damascus offices of radical Palestinian groups, and withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

"It was for the benefit of the Americans," the ex-intelligence officer says.

Nonetheless, Syria's secular regime has a long and bloody history in combating Islamist militants. In the late-1970s and early 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni extremist group, attacked regime targets in Syria before being ruthlessly crushed in 1982.

Despite American pressure on Damascus over its support for anti-Israel groups, US officials have praised Syria for its assistance in the wider war on terrorism against Islamic militants. Syria and Lebanon say they oppose terrorism but classify groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas as resistance organizations fighting Israeli occupation of Arab land.

Syria's interests

Michael Young, a Lebanese columnist and political commentator, says the existence of Islamist groups in Lebanon provides an excuse for Syria to maintain a military presence in its tiny neighbor.

"One of the things the Syrians are very much aware of is that the Americans are reluctant to push them out of Lebanon because they're afraid the Islamists will take advantage of this," he says. "I suspect that the Syrians are using this to a certain extent as a way of saying, 'All right, if you get us out of Lebanon, you may have to deal with these groups yourself.' "

At least one Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militant group in Lebanon is featured on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations: Esbat al-Ansar, which is based in the Ain al-Hilweh refuge camp outside the southern port of Sidon. Esbat al-Ansar is a prime suspect in the killing of Bonnie Penner, an American missionary, in Sidon last November.

The crackdown on the Islamic militants is the most extensive since January 2000, when Lebanese troops fought a band of Sunni Muslim radicals who had mounted an insurrection in the Dinnieh mountains of northern Lebanon. Some of the surviving militants fled to Tripoli, while others sought refuge in Ain al-Hilweh.

The camp, which is off-limits to Lebanese security forces, is experiencing a war of control between the Dinnieh insurgents and their Islamist allies and the secular Fatah faction of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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