15 April 2009

* Drug barons face off Lebanese army

An alliance of Shiite families involved in Lebanon’s hashish trade attacked an army patrol in the far eastern Beqaa Valley yesterday, killing at least four soldiers and wounding 13.

Members of the Jafar family set an ambush for an army patrol as it returned to its base on the outskirts of Baalbak yesterday morning, using rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns in one of the worst incidents of violence towards the army since the 2007 siege of the Nahr al Bared refugee camp. The family claims the attack was retaliation for the army’s killing of a key member of the family at the end of March.

In response to yesterday’s attack, the Lebanese Army deployed Special Forces commandos throughout Baalbak and sealed the highways into the city as they stepped up operations against the three largest families involved in the production of hashish in the predominately Shiite area, also a base of support for Hizbollah. By Monday evening, the army was moving large numbers of armoured vehicles, tanks and artillery into the area in anticipation of an armed response, according to witnesses.

Over the past three months, a series of raids and arrests have increased pressure on the Zoitar, Jafar and Mouwla families over their involvement in both the drug trade and a wave of carjackings throughout Lebanon. These families dominate the farming and production of hashish in eastern Lebanon and can summon thousands of well-armed family members in the rural and mountainous region.

Yesterday’s successful attack on an army patrol immediately drew condemnation from Lebanese officials, who vowed revenge on the families.

“The military is a red line that should not be crossed by anyone,” said Ziad Baroud, the interior minister. “It is unacceptable that the military be dealt with in the manner it was today. We shall strike with an iron fist to prevent this from happening again.”

Yesterday’s deaths came after months of small-scale attacks by the family members on army patrols as well as retaliatory raids by the army that began, not due to drug trafficking but in a clampdown on gangs accused in the carjackings.

According to Abu Ali, a former drug baron in Beqaa who knows the trade and the clans that control it, the problem began when younger members of the Jafar and Zoitar clans began using automatic weapons to steal expensive cars on the main highways throughout the region.

“It has always been accepted that some of the families in Beqaa will grow hashish,” Abu Ali said. “The farmers are too poor, and growing normal crops will not be enough to survive so both the army and Hizbollah allow these families to grow hashish for sale. They pay bribes to the right people and are left alone as long as they stay quiet.”

But this system came under strain as the carjacking gangs moved closer to Beirut, eventually setting up bases in two suburbs controlled by Hizbollah, which traditionally refuses to allow the Lebanese police to carry out arrests in their areas of control.

Abu Ali, who left the drug trade a decade ago and has since joined Hizbollah, described this protection of the hashish farmers as political expediency for a group with major domestic concerns in rural Lebanon.

“Hizbollah is the most powerful Shiite movement in Lebanon but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to keep people happy,” he said. “Even though they hate these families, the sectarian system in Lebanon forces them to protect huge Shiite families in the heart of their main areas, like Baalbak.”

In the past few months, however, the drug dealing and carjackings became increasingly brazen. They culminated when Ali Zoitar, a young gang leader based outside Beirut, assaulted and robbed the son of Imad Mughniyeh, a famed Hizbollah commander who was assassinated in Feb 2008 in a Damascus car bombing.

“Ali Zoitar and his boys robbed Mughniyeh’s son,” Abu Ali said. “Even when he told them he was the son of a famous martyr and a fighter for Hizbollah himself, they cursed him and took the car anyway. When they saw how arrogant these boys had become, Hizbollah withdrew its protection of these families.”

As a result, the Lebanese police were then authorised for the first time by the group to begin arrests and operations in militant controlled areas, so long as police only targeted drugs and car theft.

“Drugs are fine, cars are fine but the police have been told that if they enter a house looking for drugs and find 50 machine guns or RPGs, they had better pretend like they didn’t see anything,” a Hizbollah member confirmed. “Weapons are for the resistance.”

Without Hizbollah’s political protection, a Lebanese Army officer warned Noah Zoitar, the 39-year old warlord who controls thousands of hectares of cannabis fields, to end the car thefts and turn over some of the suspects to police. Noah agreed but Ali Zoitar refused and immediately targeted the same officer’s wife, robbing her in her home a few days later.

“Noah was told by the army that the carjacking had to stop,” Abu Ali said. “He was told that no one had any interest in hurting the farmers but that political pressure was forcing a crackdown on the car thieves. He was told to order his boys to stop, and was asked to turn over a few offenders to the police. But Ali refused and robbed the officer’s wife.”

A now infuriated Lebanese Army swept into the Zoitar clan’s village of Kneisse, occupying Noah Zoitar’s home and dispatched teams to hunt down Ali Zoitar. In late March, they found and killed him in a shoot-out near Beirut and a few days later an army patrol ambushed Ali Abbas Jafar outside of Baalbak, killing him and several comrades.


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

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Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.