Beirutis turn to private security firms after bomb attacks

BEIRUT — The people of Beirut have turned to private security contractors using sniffer dogs, surveillance cameras and explosives detectors as government forces fail to prevent repeated bomb attacks.With numerous explosions since deadly fighting between the army and Islamists erupted in the north of the country on May 20, many Beirut residents say they live in fear of the next attack.

Two people have been killed and dozens more wounded in more than eight bombings targeting residential and commercial areas.

 Amid a heavy deployment of government forces across the capital, an army of private security elements has also appeared on the streets, preventing drivers from parking outside the homes, businesses or embassies of their clients.

“Demand is so great that the number of security firms has multiplied tenfold. When I founded my company in 1999, there were seven. Today there are about 50,” retired army general Pierre Hadjigeorgiou, owner of Professional Security-PROSEC, told AFP.

He said about 15,000 people, many of them former soldiers, now work in the private security sector.

“My deputy is a retired army officer. In this business, it is better to have people with a military background because they are more disciplined than people from the private sector,” he said.

“We provide backing to the government forces, even if we do not carry weapons in a visible manner. We exchange information and the alert system of our surveillance units is linked to the nearest police station,” he said.

Politicians, however, do not resort to private companies.

They feel safer under the protection of die-hard bodyguards hand-picked from their own communities, in addition to state-appointed military servicemen, said one of the “guardian angels” to Walid Jumblatt, a main leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority.

In Lebanon, tribal traditions dictate a feudal mentality in which followers are devoted to their respective leaders, as they know that their families will be looked after if something happens to them.

Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, another leader of the ruling majority, was wounded in an October 2004 car bombing. The family of his bodyguard, who was killed in the blast, was given land and a house.

The fear of potential attacks is so great that many clients of security companies are reluctant to talk to journalists.

“The information we gave you might be used by the terrorists who read the newspapers,” said the manager of a luxury hotel who did not wish to reveal either his identity or the name of the hotel.

Sitting in his operations room as he used a GPS system to monitor a convoy transporting cash, Hadjigeorgiou said “protection is mostly based on prevention.

“Visible security measures can scare off terrorists who may abandon their objectives in case of difficulties,” he said.

Most security firms would also not reveal what they charge. “It all depends on the client,” many of them told AFP when asked about prices.

A proper security system is costly because the equipment itself, most of it imported, is expensive. An armoured four-wheel-drive vehicle costing $250,000 to buy can be hired for $1,500 a day.

In order to be able to afford beefed up security, the owners of bars and restaurants in the capital’s nightlife hub of Gemmayzeh have clubbed together to buy the security services of a private firm.

“It costs us $23,000  per month. With that sum, we now have surveillance cameras, night patrols and explosives detectors for parking areas,” said one, Makram Zeeni.

“Night patrols backed by sniffer dogs may not be the best thing to have in a place of leisure, but clients do not object to measures which they feel protect them,” he said.

But many Beirut residents still feel uneasy even with such high profile security measures, and prefer to stay at home in the capital which resembles a ghost town at night after restaurants and malls close.

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