Lebanon gets first shipment of Saudi-funded French arms

Lebanon gets first shipment of Saudi-funded French arms
A shipment of French arms arrived in Lebanon Monday under a Saudi funded deal worth $3 billion, as authorities struggle to contain a riot in the notorious Roumieh prison.
5 min read
20 April, 2015
This is the second riot in Roumieh prison this year. (Anadolu)

Lebanon received the first instalment of $3 billion worth of French weapons paid for by Saudi Arabia on Monday, part of a four-year plan to help arm Beirut in its battle against militant groups. 

The handover ceremony held at Beirut's international airport was attended by Lebanese and French defense ministers and top army officers. 

The deal aims to boost to Lebanon’s military as it struggles to contain a rising tide of violence linked to the war in neighbouring Syria. 

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the deal will include dozens of armoured vehicles, six transport helicopters and other types of weapons. He added that the next shipment will arrive in May. 

The deal also includes training programmes for Lebanese troops run by the French military.  

More significantly, the Lebanese army is expected to receive MILAN anti-tank missiles that could provevital in the inevitable battle against thousands of al-Nusra and IS militants borders with Syria.

Battle with al-Nusra

In a speech earlier this year, Hezballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah warned the Lebanese government of an inevitable battle when the snow on the Eastern borders has melted.

Hezballah remains heavily involved in the war in Syria.

The movement involvement has turned the tide  in the Asad regime's favour.

Al-Nusra Front has been vocal about their aim to take revenge on Hezballah.  

Since then, major battles have taken place on the borders. During the winter, al-Nusra Front gathered thousands of fighters on the borders with Lebanon, in preparations for an attempted advancement into Lebanon.

The Lebanese army is therefore  critical in any resistence to the expected offensive by al-Nusra and its attempt to push into Lebanon.

Roumieh riots

Adding to the sense of insecurity, prisoners in Lebanon's Roumieh prison rioted on Friday, with 20 guards taken hostage.

In response, a "wide-scale search operation" early Monday was carried out by a strike force unit, part of the Lebanese International Security Forces' Special Operations Command.

Despite reports that the riothad been contained and the hostages have been released, Roumieh prison remains a strategic communication and command hub for IS and al-Nusra Front. 

Following two suicide attacks on the northern city of Tripoli in January 2015, the Lebanese Internal Security raided the prison and shared with the public an inconvenient truth.

After the raid, Lebanese Interior Minister, Nouhad al-Machnouk, admitted to local press that "Roumieh prison is an operations room for IS".

But the story of Roumieh is older than IS and beyond terrorism. The prisoners lack basic human rights, and live in conditions that have been the breeding grounds of extremism.

The story behind Roumieh

In 2007, the Lebanese army launched an offensive on Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian camp in northern Lebanon.

The offensive was meant to eradicate Fateh al-Islam, an extremist militant group affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Since then, the government has been detaining alleged extremists in the prison. The numbers swelled further as sectarian hardliners began lashing out against soldiers, infuriarted by sectarian tensions in Syria and Iraq.

Roumieh became one of the largest detention centres in the Middle East, holding over 4,000 inmates while having a capacity of only 1,500.

Adding to the humanitarian situation, numerous prisoners are still awaiting trail for crimes allegedly committed as early as 2007.

Omar Saif, an activist compaigning for prisoners' rights, described Roumieh as being "Lebanon's Guantanamo".

"Lebanon's Guantanamo"

For years, prisoners in Roumieh's block B communicated with fellow militants outside prison through smartphones, computers, and even satellite phones banned in Lebanon.

Corrupt guards were bribed to smuggle communication tools, Wi-Fi routers, and drugs to 900 prisoners in block B. 

They commanded and recruited militants outside prison. Prisoners also bought their mobility, removing doors from their cells and allowing for recruitment and assembly.

Prisoners in block B were in a de facto self-rule. Three Prisoners escaped in 2012 and this was only discovered a month later.

On January 10 2015, two suicide attacks rocked a cafe in Tripoli, northern Lebanon. It was no secret to the government that the terrorist cells behind the attack had some sort of link to the inmates in block B.
Consequently, a government raid on the prison faced fierce resistance from prisoners. Commandos force had to intervent to clear 900 prisoners out of block B.

Prisoners were stripped and transferred to an identical, recently renovated  block D.

An investigation revealed phone calls were made from the notorious third floor of block B to the bombers in the days leading to the attacks

Lebanese Interior Minister suggested that attacks had been coordinated from block B for years, having a functioning "terrorist operations room".

After clearing the building, "all the stories you have heard through the years of operations room in Roumieh that undertook terrorist attacks in Lebanon has ended today", Inter Minister al-Machnouk announced.

Al-Nusra demands their release and IS sings in solidarity

After the battle of Arsal with the Lebanese army in August 2014, al-Nusra Front captured 30 Lebanese soldiers.

The riots in block B pushed al-Nusra to demand the release of the prisoners linked to it in return for the Lebanese soldiers.

The Lebanese government showed little interest in the offer. Since then, frustration among inmate piled up and the humanitarian situation exacerbated.

Some of the captured soldiers were executed. Others are still at the mercy of week negotiations.

As the situation in Roumieh deteriorated, IS uploaded a song on Youtube dedicated to the prisoners in Roumieh, singing "the conditions of the prisoners in Roumieh makes me sad, brothers".

During the weekend, block D erupted in riots as inmates demanded better conditions and more medical help. They were able to take guards and doctors hostages.

It is unclear whether a negotiated settlement or a compromise led to hostages' release on Monday.

However, Interior Minister al-Machnouk reaffirmed to local press that the riots are over, hostages are released, and "Roumieh is not and won't be an Islamic emirate".