Ahbash group at centre of Hariri probe

BEIRUT — The Lebanese Sunni Muslim group Ahbash, which describes itself a charitable organisation promoting Islamic culture, is at the centre of the UN probe into the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The UN inquiry probing the assassination has named Ahmad Abdel-Al, believed to have been a top leader of Ahbash, as its key suspect over the February 14 car-bomb attack that killed Hariri and 20 others.

The Lebanese authorities on Wednesday charged Ahmad and his brother Mahmoud — who is also a member of the Syrian-linked Ahbash — in connection with the murder.

According to the UN report released last week, Mahmoud telephoned President Emile Lahoud just minutes before the blast.

He was arrested after the report was released while his brother Ahmad was seized more than a month ago for illegal possession of arms in a case also involving a close aide to General Mustafa Hamdan, the head of Lahoud’s presidential guard.

Their brother Walid Abdel-Al, who also belongs to the the shadowy Ahbash, is a member of the guard.

According to the Mehlis report, a shop owned by an alleged member of the group with close ties to Ahmad sold six pre-paid mobile phone cards “which telephone records demonstrate were instrumental in the planning of the assassination.”

“The investigation of the prepaid telephone cards is one of the most important leads in this investigation in terms of who was actually on the ground executing the assassination,” the report said.

The alleged implication of Ahbash in Hariri’s assassination has put the spotlight on the group in Lebanon, where many believe the organisation to be a tool in the hands of Syrian intelligence.

“We are innocent of all the accusations levelled against us,” Ahbash spokesman Abdelkader Fakahani told AFP.

“We are pure as snow,” he said, adding that Ahbash had no links with Ahmad. “Ahmad Abdel Al’s only mistake is to have known the person who lived in the alleged arms depot,” he said in reference to an arms warehouse linked to the group and uncovered by the Lebanese army in July.

Such remarks have failed to convince many Lebanese including the country’s top Sunni Muslim religious leader, Sheikh Rashid Kabbani, who has announced plans to regain control of several mosques that Ahbash seized in recent years.

“During the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the organisation took by force these mosques thanks to its ties to the Syrian intelligence services which gave it cover and protection,” a source close to Kabbani told AFP.

Ahbash first came to light in 1983 and gathered strength during the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, which ended only in April after strong international pressure following Hariri’s killing.

The departure of Syrian troops and intelligence operatives from Lebanon has untied many tongues and residents of the neighborhood near the group’s headquarters in Beirut are now keen on expressing their views.

Ahbash “recruited all sorts of people, including former convicts, the unemployed and failed students,” one of them said. A former employee, Samira, charged that Ahbash “exploited poverty” to push ahead with its plans while her brother Saad insisted that the organisation “had nothing to do with Islam.” “It only existed to back Emile Lahoud, Syria’s man in Lebanon,” Saad said.

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