HERMEL, Lebanon: The rigged vehicle used in a suicide bombing mission that rocked the northeastern town of Hermel over the weekend had first passed through the nearby town of Arsal, security sources told The Daily Star Sunday.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the gray Jeep Grand Cherokee with the fake license plate 371683, passed through Arsal before the attack, taking the road linking the village of Labweh to Hermel. It is unclear whether the car entered Lebanon through Arsal, however.
The sources said that the suicide bomber toured the town of Hermel before detonating his vehicle near the Aytam gas station Saturday evening, killing three people and wounding 23 others. The bomb attack was the second in less than two weeks to target an area where Hezbollah enjoys wide support.
The sources said that CCTV cameras in the village of Labweh and the eastern entrance of Hermel had spotted the car.
The sources added that authorities were waiting on the result of the forensic report, after experts finalized their examination of the blast site Sunday. They also said that the CCTV cameras near the blast site have yet to be analyzed, adding that efforts were underway to determine the identity of the suicide bomber.
The suicide bomber’s features were unblemished, despite the force of the blast. He had a fair skin, no facial hair and was approximately 20 years old.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told a local media outlet that the vehicle used in the attack was rigged with explosives outside of Lebanon. He also said the explosions plaguing Lebanon would cease once the Syria crisis was resolved.
The sources identified Issam Kheireddine and Ali Amir Allaw as two of the four killed in the blast, and said two of the wounded were in serious condition. Relatives of Allaw blocked the entrance to Hermel Saturday evening to protest the attack.
The Lebanon branch of the Nusra Front, a radical Syrian rebel force listed as a terrorist group by the United States, claimed responsibility for the attack, citing Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria.
“As the party of Iran [Hezbollah] continues to carry out crimes against our people in beloved Aleppo and insists on sending more of its fighters into Syria, we had to stop its massacres and respond in kind against its strongholds so that the party can re-evaluate its position,” a statement posted on the Twitter account of the Nusra Front in Lebanon said.The Al-Qaeda offshoot, which claimed responsibility for a similar deadly bombing in Hermel on Jan. 16, said the frequency of similar attacks revealed “Hezbollah’s weakness.”
The Nusra Front in Lebanon has claimed responsibility for bombings that targeted Hermel and the Beirut southern suburbs last month.
Hezbollah argues that most rigged cars detonated in the Beirut southern suburbs and Hermel were loaded with explosives in rebel-held Syrian territories and entered Lebanon via Arsal.
Arsal, a mainly Sunni town, is supportive of the Syrian uprising and hosts thousands of Syrian refugees.
Ali Hujeiri, the mayor of Arsal, said he had no information about whether the suicide bomber drove his car through Arsal.
Speaking to a local media outlet, Hujeiri said that residents of Arsal did not protect perpetrators of such attacks, accusing the Syrian regime of sending rigged cars to Shiite villages surrounding Arsal to spark Sunni-Shiite strife.
Meanwhile, the mukhtar and prominent figures from Arsal condemned the attack on Hermel while paying a visit to Mustafa Rabah, the former mayor of the mainly Shiite village of Labweh.
“We join the people of Hermel in condemning this terrorist crime, taking into account humane and moral considerations and out of our national commitment to coexistence and our rejection of terrorism,” said Mohammad Ezzeddine, the mukhtar of Arsal.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati denounced the attack, appealing to the Lebanese to unite in the face of terrorism.
“Once again, the hands of terror have targeted a Lebanese area ... and innocent civilians,” Mikati said in a statement.
Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, for his part, described the attack as a cowardly “terrorist act.”
“[I] urge Hermel residents to exercise self-restraint despite their deep pains,” Salam said in a statement.
The U.N. Security Council appealed to the Lebanese people to maintain national unity despite consistent attempts to undermine the country’s stability, in the wake of the deadly bombing.
Both the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council strongly condemned the “heinous” terrorist attack.
In a press statement issued in New York, the 15-member body said “the members of the Security Council underline the need to bring the perpetrators to justice.” The Council members also reaffirmed the need to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations in accordance with the United Nations Charter and all obligations under international law.
They stressed “the importance for all Lebanese parties to respect Lebanon’s policy of disassociation and to refrain from any involvement in the Syrian crisis, consistent with their commitment in the Baabda Declaration.”
A separate statement issued by Ban’s spokesperson said that he reiterated his call on all Lebanese “to rally behind their state institutions, including the Army and security forces, as the best means to confront such unacceptable and indiscriminate actions and to safeguard their country’s security and stability.”
The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon also condemned the Hermel bombing. “We urge all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from contributing to the cycle of violence,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Saturday.
The Embassy also renewed its call for the full implementation of the Baabda Declaration, U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, and the Taif Accord.