Killing of official opposed to Hezbollah not political, says Lebanese security source

Pascal Sleiman was a co-ordinator for the Lebanese Forces party

Supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces party block the main Byblos-Beirut motorway on Monday in protest over the killing of a politician in the Jbeil area. AFP
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A preliminary investigation into the killing of Lebanese Forces official Pascal Sleiman found it had no apparent political motive, a Lebanese security source told The National on Tuesday – despite the party's assertions that it was a “political assassination”.

“According to our investigation, there was nothing political about this. Nothing so far lends us to believe there was any sort of political motivation,” the security source said.

The Lebanese Army said a Syrian gang had kidnapped and killed Mr Sleiman, a local co-ordinator in the Jbeil area, north of Beirut, for the Christian Lebanese Forces party, which opposes Hezbollah.

A military official told The National that seven Syrian suspects were arrested on Tuesday, four accused of being directly involved in Monday's apparent carjacking gone wrong and three for supporting them.

The army investigation found that “the kidnapped person was killed by [the gang] while they were trying to steal his car in the Jbeil area, and they transported his body to Syria”.

But a Lebanese Forces official told The National that the results of the army's investigation were “incoherent.”

“We’re not going to entertain the story. It’s incoherent and several elements don’t make sense,” he said. “To us this is not the truth and we are still pushing to know the truth. As far as we are concerned it’s a political assassination.”

He cited the killing of former Lebanese Forces official Elias Hasrouni, who died last year in what appeared to be a car crash but was later revealed, after an autopsy, to have been murdered.

“When [Mr Sleiman's] body arrives in a bit, it will undergo an autopsy and we will find out if the story matches up or not,” the official said.

The security official told The National that Syrian authorities had handed over three of the suspects and added that Mr Sleiman's body was expected to be repatriated to Lebanon later on Tuesday.

The suspects told the investigators that Mr Sleiman had been driving along an area of Jbeil that was known as a “zone” for car theft.

“They had tried to take two other cars but they drove off too quickly. But when they got to Pascal he stopped and they caught him by surprise. He tried to resist,” the official said.

A physical altercation resulted in Mr Sleiman's death from internal bleeding, after which, according to the military official, the burglars crammed Mr Sleiman into the boot of his own car and decided to continue to Syria in an attempt to avoid detection.

Lebanese Forces supporters briefly closed the roads in Jbeil on Monday evening, with some accusing the Iran-backed Hezbollah group of a politically-motivated murder. The party said “what has been leaked so far about the motives of the crime does not seem consistent with the reality of the situation”.

Hezbollah has been engaged in near daily cross-border exchanges of fire with Israel in southern Lebanon since the outbreak of war in Gaza. The clashes have gradually increased in intensity and scope, leading to fears of an all-out war.

Lebanese Forces has been vocal in its criticism of Hezbollah's involvement in the conflict.

The militant group has often been accused of attacking its opponents, including officials from or aligned with Lebanese Forces.

In a speech on Monday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah dismissed the accusations and denied his group was involved. He accused those blaming Hezbollah of stirring up “very dangerous” sectarian tensions.

Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the killing, adding that “in these difficult circumstances, we call on everyone to exercise self-control, be wise, and not be drawn into rumours and emotions”.

Sheikh Ahmed Qabalan, Lebanon's top Shiite cleric who is also close to Hezbollah, criticised the killing while calling for calm to avoid inflaming sectarian tensions.

Mr Sleiman's killing also triggered a backlash against Syrian refugees. Footage posted online showed groups of Jbeil residents attacking people identified as Syrians.

The status of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon remains a deeply sensitive topic, particularly in a country that since 2019 has been engulfed in one of the worst economic crises in modern times.

Lebanese politicians regularly call on Syrians to return to their country.

On Tuesday, caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi called for restraint and a reduction in the number of Syrians in Lebanon.

“We are seeing more crimes committed by Syrians,” Mr Mawlawi said after a meeting with security and military officials.

He said about 35 per cent of detainees in Lebanon’s prisons were Syrian.

“The Syrian presence in Lebanon must be limited and we emphasised to the security forces the need to strictly enforce Lebanese laws on displaced Syrians.”

Updated: April 10, 2024, 3:14 AM