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Series of restaurant bombings has 'killed' Lebanese seaside city, but why?

Residents in Tyre are baffled by a series of bombings that appear to be linked only by the fact their targets are places that sold alcohol.

The Nocean restaurant, which serves alcohol, is the latest establishment to be bombed in Tyre. Its owner, Mohammed Safieddine, says the bombers were targeting tourism and had
The Nocean restaurant, which serves alcohol, is the latest establishment to be bombed in Tyre. Its owner, Mohammed Safieddine, says the bombers were targeting tourism and had "killed the city".

TYRE, LEBANON // Residents in this Lebanese seaside city are baffled by a series of bombings that appear to be linked only by the fact their targets are places that sold alcohol.

Since November, four establishments, including two restaurants, have been targeted. No one has been seriously injured in the attacks and no group has claimed responsibility.

But the motive has generated as much speculation as the perpetrators.

In the largely conservative, majority Shiite south of Lebanon, Tyre is known as a comparatively liberal and relaxed town, home to Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians.

Are the attacks aimed at creating strife in this multi-denominational city? Is it a warning from conservatives who oppose the ready availability of alcohol and young people mixing at parties and the beaches? Could it be a spillover of simmering tensions and political divisions in Lebanon, where the gap between the ruling coalition and the opposition is widening?

Zahi Zaidan, the manager of the Nocean restaurant, the most recent target in April, said people were on edge.

"They succeeded to put fear in people. They are not going out for parties at the moment. I personally am also in fear about what happened," the 35-year-old said while seated in a booth at a friend's nearby cafe,

"They are targeting tourism, but they are using the excuse of alcohol."

At this time of year, Tyre, in the south of Lebanon, is normally gearing up for its busy summer season, when locals and tourists flock to the Mediterranean coastal town.

But two weeks after the attack, debris still litters the damaged staircase leading to Nocean. A car that was parked outside the entrance to the restaurant when the bomb went off remains nearby. It is wrecked, and its windscreen shattered. The police investigation continues.

The bomb was detonated just before midnight at closing time on Sunday, April 22, targeting the third-floor restaurant and slightly injuring several staff. A McDonald's on the ground floor was not affected by the blast.

Mohammed Safieddine, who owns Nocean and another restaurant along the nearby corniche, said the explosion caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage, none of which is covered by insurance.

Mr Safieddine stopped serving alcohol at his corniche venue two months ago after what he described as unsolicited "advice", without specifying from whom.

"I decided it's safer to do that," he said. "But whoever is behind these bombings, they have killed the city. There are no more people coming out and the city is empty. It has had a major effect."

The Shiite Amal movement, which has a strong following in Tyre, has criticised the bombings, describing them as aimed at sowing instability. A source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the perpetrators were "trying to shake the security situation in the country".

Soldiers with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) are also stationed near the city.

Last December, a roadside bomb targeted a patrol close to Tyre, injuring five French soldiers and one Lebanese civilian.

As with the restaurant bombings, no group claimed responsibility for the attack, which was one of three last year against the international peacekeepers in Lebanon.

Timor Goksel, a former spokesman and senior adviser for Unifil, dismissed the idea that the recent attacks were aimed at foreigners or peacekeepers. He believes the perpetrators could be from local extremist groups trying to prove a point.

"From the nature of the attacks it seems like small groups that are not that militarily experienced," he said. "They are spoilers, but they can ruin things."

The Tyre bombings are not the first such incidents to target alcohol vendors in the south of Lebanon, but it has been years since the last attacks.

Last year, in the more conservative town of Nabatiyeh, several shops were instructed to stop selling alcohol by a community campaign.

Seated just inside the doorway of a small liquor store his family has run in Tyre for decades, a man - who did not want to be named fearing he might be targeted - said whoever was behind the recent blasts in his city were trying to send a message.

"Maybe it is about alcohol or maybe it is just about chaos. They do this to confuse everyone here," said the man in his sixties.

"People are, of course, scared, because there are so many questions. Sunni and Shia people are also very upset about this."

zconstantine@thenational.ae