During a series of military raids in Baalbeck, northeast of Beirut, one of Lebanon’s most prominent drug traffickers used his wife as a “human shield” to avoid capture by Lebanese troops.
During a week-long military operation focusing on the Al-Sharawneh area at the city’s northern entry, troops targeting Ali Munther Zeaiter, known in the drug world as Abu Salleh, demolished drug-manufacturing labs and confiscated military-grade weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades.
In an attempt to apprehend Zeaiter, a major drug dealer suspected of overseeing one of Lebanon’s largest drugs production and smuggling networks, one soldier is alleged to have been killed and five others wounded.
According to Arab News, Zeaiter was able to flee by using his wife as a “human shield” and fired on approaching forces.
According to the source, Zeaiter was shot in the thigh during a gun duel in which rockets were fired, and troops were obliged to flee to prevent killing civilians.
Six Lebanese and six Syrians were detained as a result of the raid or earlier drug trafficking convictions.
Among those detained are reported to be Zeaiter’s bodyguards.
“Army units managed to access Zeaiter’s house despite all the surveillance cameras and informants positioned on the roads leading to the neighborhood,” the military source claimed. The objective was to capture him alive. This person is wanted on 390 arrest warrants and has been smuggling drugs into Lebanon, particularly Beirut and Mount Lebanon.”
“Our shortcoming was our determination not to attack civilians,” he continued, adding that “the army does not regard the inhabitants of Baalbeck as hostile in any manner.”
Baalbek and northern Bekaa are connected by Al-Sharawneh. The neighborhood has become a hotspot of criminal activity after Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005.
After becoming a sanctuary for professional gangs executing ransom kidnappings, manufacturing and smuggling drugs, and hiring recognized criminals, crime rates skyrocketed.
Despite Hezbollah’s dominance in the region, the group has never attempted to exert control over the situation.
“Our fight on drugs has not ended,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Aoun stated from Baalbeck on Friday. We don’t wait for political or religious cover to fight drugs, and we don’t work on a schedule, but rather out of a sense of obligation to our people and country.”
The operations resulted in the seizure of two drug-making labs, as well as narcotics, substantial sums of cash, and three four-wheel-drive vehicles, according to Aoun.
Weapons and ammunition were also seized, including grenade launchers and 15 hunting rifles.
According to Aoun, dozens of surveillance cameras were discovered on the roofs and balconies of residential buildings in Al-Sharawneh to watch the army and security forces’ movements.
Four residences suspected to be used for Zeaiter’s drug operations were demolished, causing local women to march to the streets to protest the demolition.
Families in Baalbeck-Hermel accused troops of employing “excessive force,” while Amal MP Ghazi Zeaiter denounced the army’s behavior as well.
“I give the army one to two hours to stop the pursuit of the wanted persons, else we will stand with the clan,” Sheikh Mohammed Yazbeck, a member of Hezbollah’s Shoura Council, informed members of the Zeaiter clan. We appreciate the Zeaiter family’s prudence and choice to refrain from using their weapons.”
Hezbollah did not press the army to cease its operation in the Al-Sharawneh area, according to the military source. “The party was attempting to determine the duration of the military action.”
It’s unclear whether Zeaiter made it to Syria or is still hiding in Lebanon.
Other raids are planned in the area, according to the military source, who added, “As long as drug production continues, so will our mission.”
Many people reacted to the military operation on social media, with some activists urging the army leadership to strike with an iron hand and expel the gangs and drug dealers, while others accused Hezbollah of covering up for drug dealers and profiting from trafficking.
According to the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces, the dissemination of Captagon pills has increased significantly, followed by the proliferation of hashish. 42.5 million Captagon tablets were seized in 2021, a new high compared to prior years.
“Drug use does not appear to have been greatly affected by the economic crisis,” the insider said. Price reductions have been used by dealers and peddlers, and requests vary depending on the users’ financial capability. To get money to acquire drugs, some people are resorting to thievery.”