- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

BEIRUT (AP) - Gunmen ambushed Lebanese troops in the east of the country on Monday, spraying their military vehicle with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, a senior military official said. Four soldiers were killed and an officer was wounded in the attack.

The ambush comes after a recent push by Lebanese troops to crack down on the drug trade and hunt fugitives wanted for other crimes in the Bekaa Valley, and the assault had the hallmarks of a revenge attack by clansmen.

The northern part of the Bekaa has for decades been a notoriously lawless region where Shiite clans involved in the drug trade have held sway. It is also a stronghold of Hezbollah militants.

Hezbollah, which has wide support among Shiites in the Bekaa, condemned Monday’s attack and called for bringing the perpetrators to justice.

The gunmen, traveling in three vehicles, sped away after the attack, which took place on a major road near the town of Rayak, the military official said.

“The army is chasing the gunmen and calls on citizens not to shelter them,” the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.

The army has bases in the region, and reinforcements of armored vehicles and troops were sent to the area, witnesses said.

Gunmen in the eastern city of Baalbek who are believed to be members of a clan targeted in the recent military crackdown unleashed celebratory gunfire after hearing news of the army casualties. The army killed two members of the clan last month.

President Michel Suleiman, a former army commander, urged the military “not to be lenient with the attacking criminals in order to defend the dignity of the army and the country and protect national peace.”

The killing of the soldiers highlighted the difficulty in bringing stability to a nation still bedeviled by the divisions that triggered the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.

Monday was the 34th anniversary of the start of the conflict. Hundreds of people marked the anniversary with calls for unity between Christians and Muslims at a one-time front line in downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square.

Years after the war, Lebanese remain deeply divided. Sectarian tensions resulted in street violence in Beirut last May that killed 81 people. Preparations for parliamentary elections to be held in June have also renewed tensions.

Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said Monday’s attack was linked to the army crackdown on criminal activity in the Bekaa but will not deter the military from pursuing its campaign.

During the civil war, Lebanon became a major producer of narcotics and a transit point for international smugglers.

The northern part of the Bekaa Valley during that period was a major hashish producing region where the drug was grown out in the open. In the 1990s, a strengthened government launched campaigns against the hashish growers and smugglers that largely eradicated the trade.

Some dealers, however, have continued to grow hashish clandestinely in remote mountain areas near the border with Syria, though the government regularly cracks down on them. Others have switched to another lucrative business, theft of luxury cars.

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