The Lebanese army has raided homes and a suspected Captagon factory in Al Sharawneh neighbourhood in Baalbek, engaging in armed clashes with suspects after security forces freed a kidnapped Saudi citizen.
Saudia Airlines worker Mshari Al Mutairi was kidnapped in Beirut on Sunday night before being rescued by the Lebanese military's intelligence unit following a special operation near the Syrian border.
Security forces said the Saudi citizen had given a statement to officials saying masked assailants struck him with a rifle butt during his kidnapping.
Officials said they had feared Mr Al Mutairi would be taken across the border into Syria, where Lebanese authorities would have no jurisdiction, but the kidnappers were caught before the transfer could take place.
The incident has raised fears about security in Lebanon, which has seen a rise in kidnapping since the onset of a sharp economic decline starting in 2019.
The country is desperate to attract foreign investment and public officials have scrambled to highlight the swift rescue of Mr Al Mutairi, drawing praise from Walid Al Bukhari, the Saudi ambassador in Beirut.
Seven people, the majority of them Lebanese, were arrested on suspicion of being involved in the kidnapping, a security official told The National.
The Lebanese army said suspects opened fire at a military centre and a house belonging to a soldier.
There were no reported injuries in the clash.
Captagon is a synthetic drug which is cheap to produce but can be highly lucrative to drug cartels when smuggled in large quantities.
Arrests were made in the Al Sharawneh neighbourhood of Baalbek, which has a reputation for being a lawless area ruled by gangs and drug cartels.
Army raids will continue throughout the day, a security source with knowledge of the operation told The National.
Gang leader Moussa Ali Wajih Jaafar was behind the operation in which Mr Al Mutairi was kidnapped and held hostage, the official confirmed.
Conflicting information had emerged following announcement of Mr Al Mutairi's kidnapping, with local news stations reporting that a drug dealer known as Abu Silah was behind the operation.
Abu Saleh is the pseudonym of Ali Mounther Zeaiter, one of the biggest and most-wanted drug cartel heads in Lebanon. Mr Zeaiter lives and operates in Al Sharawneh.
However, the security source said that Mr Zeaiter was not the kidnapper but possibly an accomplice involved in protecting Mr Jaafar in Al Sharawneh.
“Our investigation doesn't prove that Abu Saleh was a partner in the operation or gave any orders,” the official said. “Ali Mounther Zeaiter, or Abu Saleh, was possibly protecting or helping Moussa Jaafar but he was not the planner of the operation.
“They usually band together and support each other in such instances.”
The official also denied rumours of Abu Saleh's death in an army raid.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi on Monday tweeted that military intelligence personnel had been searching for Mr Al Mutairi since Sunday.
On Tuesday Mr Mawlawi praised the military and security forces, who he said worked “in complete co-ordination.”
“The independent Lebanese judiciary will consider the seriousness of the kidnapping crime,” he added.
Walid Al Bukhari, Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, thanked Mr Mawlawi for his efforts and praised the army's “professional and speedy” rescue operation.
“The efforts made by the army are enormous and led to the liberation of the kidnapped man within less than 48 hours,” Mr Al Bukhari said. “I thank Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi and the army commander for their diligent follow-up.
“Everything that happened confirms the keenness of the Lebanese authorities to provide appropriate conditions to ensure the security of tourism in the country and to attract tourists.”
He added that after being released Mr Al Mutairi had undergone medical examinations and was pronounced in good health.
The kidnappers had demanded a ransom of $400,000, state-run Saudi TV station Al Ekhbariya had earlier reported.
After the kidnapping, the Saudi embassy in Lebanon asked its diplomatic staff to work from home.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati congratulated the army on the “great effort deployed to release him and arrest those involved in the kidnapping”.
Hostage crisis fears
Mr Al Mutairi's kidnapping and other recent incidents have fuelled fears of hostage-taking operations against Arab and foreign citizens increasing.
Last month an Iraqi man was kidnapped in the Keserwan-Jbeil governorate, north of Beirut.
He was freed days later by the army.
A Syrian man visiting Lebanon from Dubai was kidnapped in April and a $250,000 ransom was demanded in exchange for his safe return.
He was rescued and freed by Internal Security Forces, while three suspected kidnappers were arrested by the army.
In July 2022, a Saudi citizen was abducted on arrival at Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut.
Saudi-Lebanon relations have been strained in recent years.
They had begun mending after an unexpected peace agreement brokered by China earlier this year to restore relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Since 2021, Saudi citizens have had to obtain their government's permission before travelling to Lebanon.
Mr Al Mutairi's kidnapping prompted condemnation from Lebanese politicians and raised concerns the incident would lead to a renewed diplomatic rift.