60 Minutes camera crew 'walked into jaws of death', says leading Hezbollah expert

By Marnie O’Neill of news.com.au

Tara Brown and the 60 Minutes crew "walked into the jaws of death" when they chose to carry out a child recovery mission in a Hezbollah-run neighbourhood.

Australia's leading expert on the Shi'ite extremist group and political party, Associate Professor Felix Patrikeeff, told news.com.au that the southern Beirut suburb of Dahieh was one of the most dangerous districts in the capital and a Hezbollah stronghold.

"(Dahieh) would be laced with individuals whose job it is to maintain security and whose prerogative is to ensure that people who shouldn't be there and are going to be risky to security are spotted and dealt with and not necessarily through the proper channels," he said.

Clockwise from top left: Tara Brown, Ben Williamson, Stephen Rice and David Ballment.
Clockwise from top left: Tara Brown, Ben Williamson, Stephen Rice and David Ballment.

"So carrying out such an operation there, where Hezbollah knows how to work the system on the ground, was the equivalent of that camera crew walking into the jaws of death."

Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner, the 60 Minutes team, two members of a UK-based child recovery agency remain and two locals are currently languishing in a Lebanese jail following their failed attempt to retrieve Ms Faulkner's two young children.

The offences they've been charged with, which range from conspiracy to commit a crime to kidnapping and physical assault, carry jail terms of up to 20 years.

Sally Faulkner with her children Lahela aged 6 years (centre) and Noah aged 4 years. Photo / Supplied
Sally Faulkner with her children Lahela aged 6 years (centre) and Noah aged 4 years. Photo / Supplied

Ms Faulkner, who has a three-month old baby in Brisbane with her new partner, says Lehela, five and Noah, four, were "kidnapped" by their Lebanese-born father Ali Elamine after he took them to Beirut for a holiday and then refused to return them.

The botched mission to get them back took place on Sainte Therese Rd, the main artery in Dahieh, where closed circuit security cameras are perched on virtually every street corner. Not surprisingly, the whole dramatic event was caught on tape as Hezbollah guerillas looked on.

Prof Patrikeeff, who specialises in international relations and security studies at the University of Adelaide, said the 60 Minutes team's naivety about the local situation essentially doomed the operation from the start.

Ten years ago Dahieh was reduced to rubble by Israeli air strikes during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war and has been a Hezbollah stronghold ever since.

"I don't think the 60 Minutes crew knew enough about the political environment to fully understand that it was Hezbollah who gave the Israeli Defence Force so much grief and they're not exactly easy prey," Prof Patrikeeff said.

People and policemen stand at the entrance of the courthouse compound holding the nine suspects of kidnapping two Lebanese-Australian children. Photo / AP
People and policemen stand at the entrance of the courthouse compound holding the nine suspects of kidnapping two Lebanese-Australian children. Photo / AP

"Having seen the CCTV coverage of what was very much an audacious snatch, I wouldn't say the agency did a bad job as some have suggested. It was very quick, it needed to be in the open and they did a pretty good job apart from the fact that there was CCTV watching, and, knowing precisely what happened, authorities were able to act very quickly."

Prof Patrikeeff said he believed 60 Minutes also grossly underestimated the power of Mr Elamine's political connections.

"The man and his mother are related to the speaker of the Lebanese Parliement, Nabih Berri, who is one of the leaders of the Amal militia, who have fought against Hezbollah (in the past)," he said.

"So it's Amal who, doubtless, was instrumental in responding to the situation using local networks."

JULIE BISHOP IN TALKS

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Photo / AP
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Photo / AP

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, currently in China, has confirmed discussions have occurred between Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her Lebanese counterpart, NewsCorp journalist Charles Miranda reports.

Mr Turnbull said the five were receiving full consular support from Australian diplomats and consular officials in Beirut.

"We are providing them with every support but of course we expect the Lebanese legal system and their right to investigate and take proceedings if they feel offences have been committed," he said.

"But we support Australians who find themselves in these difficulties and these circumstances right around the world and of course we're doing that with respect to the 60 Minutes crew in Beirut at the moment."

Earlier a spokesman for the Foreign Minister said Australian consular staff in Beirut are continuing to provide ongoing assistance. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth office confirmed it is also providing assistance to two British nationals following the April 7 arrests.

Lebanese news service the Daily Star reports the charges could lead to 20 years' jail time.

According to the ABC, child abduction charges against Ms Faulkner and the 60 Minutes crew could be downgraded from the more serious "deprivation of liberty" to a misdemeanour because it was not a case of kidnapping for ransom but instead about reuniting the children with their mother.

Bruce Haigh, a former senior Australian diplomat who has worked in several Middle Eastern countries, believes the Nine Network needs to "grovel" if it wants its staff released.

"You need to go and make an abject apology to the Lebanese government and you need to say, 'Look, we made a huge error, a bad error of judgment and we really apologise for what's occurred.'

"Nothing short of that will get these people out," he told ABC Radio.

RISKY BUSINESS OF CHILD RECOVERY

A Lebanese policeman stand guards at the entrance of the courthouse. Photo / AP
A Lebanese policeman stand guards at the entrance of the courthouse. Photo / AP

The media crew is believed to have engaged Child Abduction Recovery International (CARI) to carry out the retrieval of the children.

The controversial group is based in Britain and led by ex-Australian soldier Adam Whittington who has had run-ins with the law before, notably in Singapore where he was sentenced to 16 weeks jail during a previous case.

It claims to be staffed by ex-military with specialist skills and recovery operations can cost upwards of $20,000 each. While some have been satisfied with their services, other experts warn mediation is the best route for retrieving a child internationally.

The company has been the subject of an ITV documentary Abducted before, focusing on the recovery of a child from her mother in Poland.

- news.com.au

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