BEIRUT (Reuters)–Lebanese authorities have charged 77 people with spying for Israel and accused them of providing the Jewish state with intelligence on the Lebanese and Syrian military–a security source said on Thursday.
The source said 17 of the suspects had been arrested two weeks ago for allegedly handing Israel information on the military activities of Lebanon–Syria and Hizbollah guerrillas. The other suspects are still at large.
A statement from the office of military prosecutor Nasri Lahoud said the alleged spies had handed Israel intelligence on Syrian military bases and airports as well as Syrian military movemen’s inside Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley.
The alleged network was cracked after Raja Ward–an intelligence officer for Israel’s proxy South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia–surrendered to the Lebanese army at a checkpoint several weeks ago–the security source said.
In Jerusalem–an army spokesman’said: "This matter is not familiar to us in the army."
Syria is Israel’s most implacable Arab foe and has some 35,000 troops stationed in Lebanon–making it the country’s main power broker.
Both Lebanon and Syria have held sporadic peace negotiations with Israel but are officially still in a state of war with the Jewish state.
Lebanese law forbids citizens from contacting or dealing with Israel.
About 1,000 Israeli troops occupy a self-declared security zone in south Lebanon with the help of 2,300 SLA militiamen.
Iranian-backed Hizbollah guerrillas are waging a guerrilla war to oust them from the zone–site of frequent roadside bombs–rocket attacks and fierce ground clashes.
The statement from the military prosecutor’s office said that under Lebanese law–the suspects could face the death penalty if convicted.
SLA commander General Antoine Lahd has been sentenced to death in absentia for treason. Last year–Lebanon’s military court sentenced 87 Lebanese men to 15 years in jail with hard labor for collaborating with Israel.
The statement said the suspects had sent information in letters mailed from Beirut International Airport to contacts in Athens–with one of them allegedly being paid $7,300 for 11 letters he sent.
Gideon Ezra–former head of the Shin Bet security service’s northern district and now a legislator in Israel’s ruling Likud party–told army radio:
"It’s hard to believe that this would be such a large ring because one of the basic principles in intelligence is not to reveal the identity of one man to another. You have to maintain compartmentalization–otherwise it could all collapse like a house of cards.
"It’s completely clear that even if there is something true in this report–Israel can neither confirm nor deny things like this."
The spy charges came one week after the Beirut authorities accused members of an outlawed pro-Israeli Christian militia of staging attacks and bombings in Lebanon during the last two years and plotting to kill two ministers.