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Lebanon Targets Islamic Radicals ; Pressured by the US, Arab Countries Are Arresting Dozens of Islamic Militants, Some with Al Qaeda Ties

Article excerpt

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. …