BEIRUT, Lebanon – Soldiers have arrested nine suspected terrorists who planned to attack the U.S. Embassy and kidnap Cabinet ministers in Lebanon, a senior Lebanese security officer said Thursday.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the detainees included seven Lebanese and two Palestinians.
He said it was not yet known whether they were linked to the Al Qaeda terror group, which carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and is suspected in car bombings this week against Western targets in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, in which 34 people were killed.
Earlier, the Lebanese military issued a statement saying it had arrested members of a terrorist network that planned to attack the embassy of a "major Western state" and security and military targets, as well as kidnap government officials to bargain for the release of their detained comrades, the army said.
A spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut (search) told The Associated Press the embassy had "no comment" on the statement, which came from the army's Intelligence Directorate.
The network was exposed and its members detained with the help of the Syrian forces in Lebanon. Syria has nearly 25,000 troops stationed in Lebanon, the army said.
The statement did not give the identities of the detainees, who it said were interrogated and handed over to the "appropriate judicial authorities." Neither the statement nor the security officer said when the arrests took place.
The security officer said the detainees were believed to be seeking the release of Muslim fundamentalists from north Lebanon who arrested after shootouts with the Lebanese army more than two years ago.
New of the arrests came a day after Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (search) ended a three-day official visit to Lebanon, in which he joined the Lebanese government in condemning the Riyadh attack. However, Khatami expressed support for Hezbollah (search), the Lebanese militant group that the United States regards as terrorist.
Lebanon, Syria and Iran say they are opposed to terrorism, but they publicly support Hezbollah, which periodically attacks Israel across the south Lebanese border and has kidnapped three Israeli soldiers in the past three years.
The three governments deny that Hezbollah is terrorist, arguing it is a group that wages a legitimate resistance struggle against Israel's occupation of a tiny parcel of territory Lebanon claims. The United Nations says the territory in question belongs to Syria and was captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Thursday's statement was phrased in terms that seemed designed to answer Lebanese critics of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. The military said the arrests were executed "in cooperation with the security and intelligence apparatus of the sisterly Syrian forces."
Opponents of the government, particularly members of the Christian community, have long called for the withdrawal of Syrian forces, which entered as a peacekeeping force during the 1975-90 civil war. But the pro-Syrian government contends their presence is necessary to maintain stability and to counter what it calls the Israeli occupation.