Lebanese security forces launch prison crackdown after deadly bombing
Lebanese security forces raided the notorious Roumieh Prison just east of the capital Beirut on Monday morning, focusing on a building set aside for “Islamist” prisoners.
An elite team moved in to raid Block B of the prison – the wing houses some 900 prisoners, a third of whom are locked up for terrorism offences.
The raid came after security services discovered that prisoners on the wing had been in contact with militants accused of launching the suicide attack that killed at least 11 people at a cafe in Tripoli’s Jabal Mohsen area on Saturday night.
“The operation in Roumieh came after we discovered calls between prisoners in Block B and members of Islamic State linked to the suicide bombers at Jabal Mohsen," Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk told the press on Monday.
An investigation into Block B carried out last year found that, although prisoners are forbidden from owning mobile phones, many inmates in fact regularly use smartphones, allowing them not just to make calls but also to use the internet.
The Jabal Mohsen attack, carried out by two suicide bombers who blew themselves up within minutes of each other in an Alawite-majority suburb of Tripoli, has since been claimed by al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, al-Nusra Front.
During the raid smoke billowed from the complex and Lebanese army helicopters hovered at low altitude overhead.
Later civil defence teams including at least two fire engines entered the complex.
A Red Cross ambulance was also seen entering the complex – there had been reports of large numbers of injuries among the prisoners, although security sources have so far denied the claims.
Photographs posted on Twitter, claiming to be shot from within the prison compound, appeared to show numerous people with gunshot wounds.
As news of the raid broke protesters blocked Mania Road, a dual carriageway in central Tripoli. The gathering was “in solidarity with the Block B prisoners,” according to local radio station Voix Du Liban.
The road was later reopened by the army, with tanks moving in to break up the demonstration.
In the aftermath of the attack, militants from Nusra Front threatened to retaliate.
The group is holding 25 Lebanese servicemen captive near the border with Syria, in a joint operation with Islamic State (IS). On Monday morning Nusra Front supporters threatened to execute more of the soldiers in revenge for the prison raid.
A Twitter account purportedly representing Nusra Front's media arm promised "surprises" relating to the captives.
"As a result of the security detioration in Lebanon, you will be hearing some suprises relating to the fate of the prisoners of war we are holding. Stay tuned."
Militants from the group executed one of the soldiers, who had been held captive for months, in early December.
According to Nusra Front statements, Lebanese authorities had failed to respond to the group’s demands for the release of their leader’s wife and children, who are detained in Lebanon.
The killing provoked widespread protests across Lebanon, with people closing roads and burning tyres, demanding that the government do more to free the rest of the captives.