Lebanon News

Storm brews over telecoms controversy

BEIRUT: Internal Security Forces (ISF) chief Major General Ashraf Rifi sounded defiant Sunday in the face of threats of prosecution for failing to comply with caretaker Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud’s order to evacuate members of the ISF’s Information Branch from a telecoms building, maintaining that he acted according to law to protect the state property.

“I exercised my legal prerogatives. I did my national duty to protect the state property,” Rifi told The Daily Star.

Meanwhile, a political source said President Michel Sleiman was “furious” over Rifi’s refusal to carry out the president’s order to evacuate members of the ISF Information Branch from the telecoms building.

“The president is now discussing taking judicial measures against Rifi which could result in Rifi being referred to the judiciary,” the source told The Daily Star.

Sleiman and Baroud discussed Saturday judicial, legal and administrative measures concerning the implementation of the interior minister’s decision to withdraw the ISF members from the telecom building.

Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun threatened Sunday to launch an “open battle” against Rifi over his refusal to comply with the order.

Asked to comment on Aoun’s renewed call Sunday on Sleiman to refer him to the judiciary for failing to obey Baroud’s order, Rifi said, “I will not respond to hollow rhetoric.”

Rifi is currently at the center of a heated controversy that has sparked a war of words between the March 8 and March 14 camps following last week’s incident involving equipment for a third GSM network at a building affiliated with the Telecommunications Ministry. The incident underlined the sharp split between the rival factions over the role of security agencies in the country.

Last Thursday, caretaker Telecommunications Minister Charbel Nahhas from Aoun’s bloc and a number of technicians attempted to access the facility, which houses the equipment for the third GSM network on the building’s second floor.

Ahead of Nahhas’ arrival, officers and personnel of the Information Branch were ordered to tightly control the facility and to ban the relocation of the facility’s equipment.

When Nahhas arrived at the facility, security forces stopped him from transferring equipment belonging to state-run Ogero to the facilities of mtc touch.

Both Aoun and Nahhas have denounced the incident as “a coup attempt” and called on Sleiman to refer Rifi to the judiciary.

The incident also prompted Baroud, who is loyal to Sleiman, to resign in protest against Rifi’s non-compliance with his order.

The stand-off was resolved Friday when the Lebanese Army took control of the telecoms building in the Adieh neighborhood of Beirut, including securing the second floor after members of the Information Branch vacated the place.

Rifi said an agreement was reached for putting the equipment under the army’s protection. He added that members of the Information Branch relocated their positions to the seventh and eighth floors of the building.

A senior military official said the situation in and around the telecoms building in Adlieh was normal.

“The army and ISF are guarding the telecoms building. The situation is normal,” the official told The Daily Star. He refused to reveal whether any members of the Information Branch were still inside the building.

But a security source said members of the Information Branch were stationed on the seventh and eighth floors as was the case before.

Aoun renewed his call Sunday for referring Rifi and Abdul-Monem Youssef, director general of Ogero, to the judiciary, threatening to wage “open battle” against Rifi.

“We are living in a farcical state whose authority is less than an authority on paper. The judiciary must continue investigation with Youssef and Rifi in order to suspend him [Rifi] and refer him to the judiciary because the interior minister is the direct superior of the ISF’s director general. Non-compliance with [orders] requires the application of military laws,” Aoun told reporters following an extraordinary meeting of his parliamentary Change and Reform bloc at his residence in Rabieh.

Aoun said Youssef has left the country and called on judicial authorities to issue a summons or an arrest warrant for him. Youssef’s office later said he was on an authorized vacation and would be back June 6.

“Rifi and Youssef plotted the game together against Baroud and Nahhas and they will be held responsible,” Aoun said.

“The battle is open, the sessions are open and we will meet next Tuesday,” he added, referring to his bloc’s weekly meeting.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 30, 2011, on page 1.

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