Friday, April 27, 2007

Police find bodies of missing youths, step up security measures in Beirut

Police find bodies of missing youths, step up security measures in Beirut
Jumblatt urges all sides to 'let the investigation take its course'

By Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

Beirut: The bodies of two Lebanese youths who went missing earlier this week were found late Thursday, dumped near a road south of Beirut in an incident that shook the country and sparked fears of renewed sectarian violence. The bodies of Ziad Qabalan, 25, and Ziad Ghandour, 12, were found in Jadra, between the capital and Sidon, by the police at around 7 p.m. Thursday. The two Sunni youths had been missing since Monday. The police found the bodies dumped near a Jadra gas station after having received an anonymous phone call disclosing the location. Media reports quoted police sources as saying that the bodies were bloated, suggesting they had been dead for at least 48 hours. No information was immediately available on how the two had been killed. A security official quoted by The Associated Press said that Qabalan and Ghandour had been shot to death and that the bodies bore signs of beating.

Late on Thursday, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora met with the heads of the security forces and with Education Minister Khaled Qabbani. A statement issued after the meeting ordered all schools and universities to close in mourning on Friday. As The Daily Star went to press, there were reports of men gathering in Wata al-Mosseitbeh, the Beirut neighborhood where Qabalan and Ghandour lived, and in the adjacent district of Corniche al-Mazraa. Roads were closed in the areas of the gatherings and in the southern suburb of Ouzai out of security concerns.

The youths' disappearance triggered nationwide fears of another round of sectarian violence in a country tense from five months of political deadlock between government supporters and opposition forces. Four people were killed in Beirut on January 25 in sectarian clashes. The fathers of Qabalan and Ghandour belong to the Progressive Socialist Party of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has repeatedly urged all parties to remain calm and allow the authorities to investigate. "Let's let the investigation take its course so that we don't fall into [the trap] of political rumors," Jumblatt said on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation's "Kalam al-Nass" political talk show after the news of the deaths emerged. "Let's distance politics from this issue," he added, calling on his supporters to remain calm and not to take matters into their own hands. "It is very important not to politicize the incident, and we have left it to the state and its security apparatus," said Jumblatt. Earlier in the week, Jumblatt had contacted parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri to garner his support in helping to keep the situation under control. Siniora had said in a statement earlier in the day that the kidnapping was a "terrorist act" aimed at "sowing dissent between the Lebanese and dragging them toward civil strife." "It is a trap that the Lebanese will not fall into," the prime minister added.

Security sources told The Daily Star that the top suspects in the case are relatives of a 29-year-old Shiite Hizbullah supporter, Adnan Shamas, who was killed in the January 25 sectarian clashes on the Beirut Arab University campus. The sources added that a man is currently in police custody and is being interrogated over the incident, and one of Shamas' brothers is being pursued and is believed to be hiding some where in Bourj al-Barajneh, near Beirut. The Shiite Shamas clan, who mainly reside in the Ouzai area, released a statement Wednesday in which they condemned the kidnapping and distanced themselves from the perpetrators. Earlier on Thursday, Ghandour's father, 52-year-old Mounir Ghandour, was taken to the hospital upon hearing a rumor of his son's death. "A woman approached my husband as he was sitting outside the house, and told him that his son and that of Qabalan have been found dead," Samira al-Saghir, the mother of missing Ziad Ghandour and wife of hospitalized Mounir Ghandour, told The Daily Star. Upon hearing this, Mounir Ghandour fainted and was taken by his neighbors to a hospital in the nearby Cola district. "He has a weak heart, he had a surgery to install a pacemaker just two months ago," said Saghir. It was on the eve of his 12th birthday that Ziad Ghandour went missing. Before the news was made public, Ziad's mother said she feared the worse and said: "If it was about theft and money, they would have just taken their wallets and van." Officials at the hospital would not let members of the media enter the building, saying only that Mounir's "condition is stable," without giving out any further information. "The police are now looking for the woman," said Saghir, adding: "She was not from our neighborhood."

Earlier in the day, 30 pupils of the Wata al-Mosseitbeh Government School, which Ghandour attended, staged a half-hour sit-in outside the school in order to call for the 12-year-old's release. "Let us learn. Let us live. The kidnapping of Ziad Ghandour is a crime against childhood," read some of the pamphlets carried by the students. Lebanon's most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, condemned the kidnapping, describing it as a "major crime whose perpetrators should be prosecuted." President Emile Lahoud requested in a statement that all security measures be taken to prevent "any repercussions of this deplorable incident." Lahoud added the situation in Lebanon "cannot bear such acts that harm stability and further ... increase tension and rekindle strife."

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