BEIRUT — At least four Lebanese soldiers were killed and one wounded Monday in an ambush that security officials blamed on a local drug mafia.
News reports put the number of dead at five.
Lebanese officials said gunmen, using small arms and a rocket-propelled grenade, fired on an army truck in a residential area of Baalbek, a city in the Bekaa Valley. Panicked people hid in their homes and paramedics rushed to remove the wounded.
Officials say the attack was revenge for the March 27 killing at an army checkpoint of a patriarch of the Jaafar clan, which is allegedly heavily involved in the trafficking of hashish and heroin. They predict a harsh response. By early evening, soldiers had raided the homes of the clan's late patriarch, local media reported.
"The military is a red line that should not be crossed by anyone," local media quoted Interior Minister Ziad Baroud as saying. "It is unacceptable that the military be dealt with in the manner it was today. We shall strike with an iron fist to prevent this from happening again."
Lebanon's U.S.-backed army is one of the only nonsectarian institutions in a nation divided along religious lines. It won accolades nationwide in 2007 after defeating an Al Qaeda-linked militant group in northern Lebanon and weathering sectarian clashes that rocked the country up until last year.
The United States provides the Lebanese army with Humvees, trucks, body armor and ammunition and has also announced plans to deliver M-60 tanks and unmanned aircraft to help the government stand up to militant groups and monitor the country's borders.
But even as Lebanon's political violence and tensions subside, Monday's attack underscores the power of the country's drug traffickers and the associated mayhem.
"They are strong," a Lebanese army officer said of the drug gangs, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The security situation has no effect on the drugs. They have a different logic."
The Jaafar clan is infamous in Lebanese law enforcement circles. Lebanese officials allege that the family is connected to international rings that traffic in heroin, hashish and cocaine.
They're also known for holding grudges. Decades ago, a police officer shot and killed a member of the clan at a rowdy demonstration. Years later, the man's relatives tracked the officer down and killed him in Tripoli, the army officer said. The Jaafars have had frequent run-ins in the Bekaa Valley with neighboring clans and the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah.
Two weeks ago, Lebanese soldiers shot and killed alleged drug baron Ali Abbas Jaafar and an aide after they allegedly refused to stop at an army checkpoint. Jaafar was wanted on 172 outstanding arrest warrants on charges of drug trafficking and assault, the army said.
But after some witnesses alleged that Jaafar was slain in a cold-blooded ambush, the army promised an investigation.
The attack on the soldiers in Bekaa may escalate the violence.
"There will be repercussions," the army officer said. "The army will not be still."
Special correspondent Meris Lutz contributed to this report.