BEIRUT: One of Lebanon’s most notorious drug barons used his wife as a “human shield” to evade capture by Lebanese troops during a series of military raids in Baalbeck, northeast of Beirut.
Troops targeting Ali Munther Zeaiter, known in the drug world as Abu Salleh, destroyed drug-manufacturing labs and seized military-grade weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, during a week-long military operation centered on the Al-Sharawneh neighborhood at the northern entrance to the city.
One soldier is believed to have been killed and five others wounded in an attempt to arrest Zeaiter, a major drug dealer believed to oversee one of Lebanon’s biggest narcotics production and smuggling networks.
A military source told Arab News that Zeaiter managed to escape after using his wife as a “human shield” and firing on advancing troops.
Zeaiter was shot in the thigh during a gun battle in which rockets were fired, with troops forced to retreat to avoid harming civilians, the source said.
Six Lebanese and six Syrians were arrested in connection with the raid or on previous drug trafficking charges.
Zeaiter’s bodyguards are believed to be among those detained.
The military source said: “Army units, despite all the surveillance cameras and informants deployed on the roads leading to the neighborhood, managed to reach Zeaiter’s house. The goal was the catch him alive. This guy has 390 arrest warrants against him and has been flooding Lebanese areas with drugs, especially Beirut and Mount Lebanon.”
He added: “Our weakness was our decision not to harm civilians, and the army does not consider the people of Baalbeck to be hostile in any way.”
Al-Sharawneh links Baalbek to northern Bekaa. Since the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, the neighborhood has turned into a hotbed of criminal activity.
Crime rates soared after it became a haven for professional gangs committing ransom kidnappings, manufacturing and smuggling drugs, and recruiting known criminals.
Although the area is dominated by Hezbollah, the party has never sought to control the situation there.
Army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun said from Baalbeck on Friday: “Our war on drugs has not ended. We do not wait for any political or religious cover to combat drugs, and we do not work according to any agenda, but rather out of our responsibility toward our people and our country.”
Two drug-making labs had been seized in the raids along with narcotics, large quantities of cash and three four-wheel-drive vehicles, Aoun said.
Weapons and ammunition, including grenade launchers and 15 hunting rifles were also seized.
The military operation revealed dozens of surveillance cameras placed on roofs and balconies of residential buildings in Al-Sharawneh to monitor the movements of the army and security forces, Aoun said.
Troops destroyed four houses believed to used for Zeaiter’s drug operations, prompting women from the neighborhood to take to the streets to protest the demolition.
Families in Baalbeck-Hermel accused troops of using “excessive force,” while MP Ghazi Zeaiter from the Amal movement also criticized the army’s actions.
Sheikh Mohammed Yazbeck, a member of Hezbollah’s Shoura Council, told members of the Zeaiter clan: “I give the army one to two hours to stop the pursuit of the wanted persons, otherwise we will stand by the clan. We are grateful for the Zeaiter family for their restraint and decision not to use their weapons.”
However, the military source denied that the army was pressured by Hezbollah to end its operation in the Al-Sharawneh neighborhood. “The party was trying to find out how much time the military operation would take.”
It is unknown whether Zeaiter managed to escape to Syria or is still in Lebanon.
The military source confirmed that other raids are planned in the area, adding: “So long as drug production continues, so will our mission.”
Many reacted to the military operation on social media, with activists calling on the army leadership to strike with an iron fist, and get rid of the gangs and drug dealers, while other activists accused Hezbollah of covering up for drug dealers and benefiting from trafficking.
Statistics from the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces showed a significant increase in the spread of Captagon pills, followed by hashish. In 2021, 42.5 million Captagon pills were seized, a record number compared with previous years.
The source said: “Drug use does not seem to have been affected by the economic crisis much. Dealers and peddlers have relied on price cuts, and requests vary according to the users’ financial capabilities. Some are resorting to theft to secure funds to buy drugs.”