BEIRUT // At least four Lebanese soldiers were among five people killed yesterday when an explosives-laden car blew up next to a bus transporting military personnel in the northern city of Tripoli. Security authorities described the bomb as packed with ball bearings for maximum damage and the blast wounded at least 24 people - including 18 soldiers. The Lebanese military was targeted at another Tripoli bus stop less than two months ago, when a remote-controlled device exploded, killing 14 people in mid-August.
The Lebanese Armed Forces put out a statement condemning the attack: "Once again a treacherous hand has reached out to strike at the military establishment in a terrorist attack clearly aimed at undermining efforts at peace and stability." Authorities said the attackers placed a bomb underneath a Renault 12 car owned by a soldier, which exploded after he parked near the bus stop. All of the dead soldiers were from the local Akkar region, a bastion of the Lebanese military. Army intelligence agents have arrested the car owner and are interrogating him for additional information, according to local media reports.
Lebanese military and security officials immediately blamed radical Sunni Muslim groups influenced by al Qa'eda-style militancy for both attacks, pointing to last year's extensive siege of the nearby Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, where the Lebanese army fought the Fatah al Islam radical group for control of the camp, as motive. Hundreds of soldiers, militants and civilians were killed and thousands of Palestinian refugees lost their homes in the three-month siege that left many militants vowing revenge.
Lebanon's second largest city, Tripoli, houses a significant conservative Sunni Muslim population that has contributed fighters to a host of radical Islamic causes, including sending dozens of fighters to Iraq to oppose the US-led occupation. Those militants, as well as Sunnis radicalised by a series of clashes in May between Shiite Muslim Hizbollah and the Sunni political establishment, have been vowing attacks on a variety of rivals, including the Lebanese army, Hizbollah and Syria.
Throughout the summer, a series of fights between Sunni militias and the tiny Allawite population loyal to Syria turned central Tripoli into a battleground before a recent peace deal ended the fighting. Daie al Islam al Shahal, the head and founder of the conservative Salafi movement in Lebanon, said the attack was designed to destabilise the peace agreement between Tripoli's rival factions, while blaming fundamentalist Sunnis.
"It seems like the reconciliation is bothering some people who don't want stability in Lebanon," he said. "They don't want to see us in Tripoli living in peace and unity. The accusation of [we] Salafis concerning the bomb today is aiming to destroy our image as Muslims and Salafis. Knowing that it's easy to accuse us because we don't have any political cover. They want Tripoli to have a sad Eid." Monday's attack comes after string of events that have increased tensions along Lebanon's northern border with Syria, where thousands of Syrian troops were recently moved to the border to prevent infiltration by Sunni militants opposed to both the Syrian and Lebanese regimes. A car bomb in Damascus on Saturday killed more than a dozen people, and yesterday, Syrian government officials blamed Sunni extremists from a neighbouring Arab country, but did not specify which one.