ANJAR, Lebanon, Dec 4 (Reuters) – Lebanese forces excavated a suspected third mass grave on Sunday, a day after unearthing 25 decomposed corpses in an eastern town that was the headquarters of Syrian intelligence for three decades.
Security forces were digging for more bodies at the third site near two other mass graves close to an old onion farm in the eastern town of Anjar, long used by Syrian intelligence as a notorious interrogation centre.
Security sources said the 25 bodies found so far — most now only skeletons in scraps of underwear — had lain in the shallow graves for over 12 years but it was not clear who they were and how they died, though one wore military trousers.
The finds were the first directly linked to Syria’s 29-year military presence, which ended in April, though the bodies of 13 Lebanese soldiers killed during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war were exhumed from Defence Ministry grounds at Yarze last month.
They are believed to have been killed when Syria routed the forces of former General Michel Aoun at the close of the war.
Lebanese Internal Security Forces said in a statement residents of the eastern area on Anjar, which is near the border with Syria, had led them to the unmarked graves.
“A forensic doctor was appointed to uncover the remains, which were placed in plastic bags and sent to laboratories for DNA tests to identify them,” the statement said.
There has been no Syrian reaction to the discovery of the graves.
The mayor of the nearby town of Majdal Anjar, who helped lead security forces to the graves, said he believed up to 40 bodies were buried in the area, near a hilltop Muslim shrine.
“These bodies have been buried near the shrine of Nabi Uzeir since 1993. I have known since 1999 but kept silent,” Shaaban al-Ajami told Reuters. Residents said they could not speak out while Syrian intelligence kept a tight grip on Lebanon.
The Lebanese Army took over the onion farm after Syrian troops and intelligence agents withdrew from Lebanon amid an international outcry and Lebanese protest over the killing of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Syria first poured troops into Lebanon in 1976, establishing a intelligence network feared by many Lebanese, and dominated Lebanon’s politics after the end of the civil war.
Many Lebanese resented Syria’s grip and accuse its forces and intelligence agents of serious abuses during the war. They blame Damascus for Hariri’s assassination in a Feb. 14 truck bomb in Beirut, though Syria denies any role.
Some families of Lebanese who went missing during the war, say their loved ones languish in Syrian jails to this day, though Damascus denies holding any Lebanese political detainees.
Ghazi Aad, head of Support of Lebanese in Detention or Exile, or SOLIDE, visited the graves and demanded the government probe the killing or disappearance of Lebanese during the war.
“Why doesn’t Lebanon ask the United Nations to identify those criminally responsible for these mass graves? We demand an an investigation into all the disappearances and mass graves conducted in Lebanon,” Aad told reporters.
“All those whom the Syrians detained used to pass through Anjar and be tortured … and those who died under torture were buried near the onion factory prison.”
It also appears that it isn’t just onions being grown in the Bekaa Valley. This account from Middle East Newsline does also appear on the website of the anti-Syria Lebanese Lobby, and cites the reactionary Freedom House. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the claims aren’t true.
SYRIA STILL CONTROLS DRUG TRADE IN LEBANON
November 15, 2005
Despite its military withdrawal, Syria continues to control the opium trade in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. A leading U.S. expert with links to the American intelligence community said the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has maintained control over most revenues from neighboring Lebanon.
Gary Gambill, an analyst with Freedom House, said the Assad regime continued to benefit from the illegal heroin production and trade in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border. “The Assad regime is not yet in trouble,” Gambill wrote in an analysis for Middle East Forum. “Syrian troops may no longer be in Lebanon, but none of its most important Lebanese revenue streams have been cut.
Drug producers in the Bekaa Valley and corrupt bankers in Beirut will continue paying off the Syrians as long as Damascus can guarantee that the authorities in Beirut leave them alone.” Gambill said Syrian farmers continued to smuggle produce into Lebanon with help from the Assad regime.
He said most Syrian workers — estimated at nearly 1 million — remained in Lebanon.
See our last post on Lebanon.