BEIRUT: A suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt on board a passenger van south of Beirut Monday, killing himself and wounding at least two people, in a sign of an escalation in suicide attacks against Hezbollah supporters.
The attack, which was claimed by the Nusra Front in Lebanon on its Twitter account, came just two days after a man set off a rigged vehicle at a gas station in the northeastern city of Hermel, killing three people.
Nusra claimed on Twitter that the attack targeted a passenger van “at a checkpoint manned by Hezbollah in Shoueifat.”
The bomber detonated his belt, estimated to carry 5 kg of explosives, after boarding the white Hyundai van in Shoueifat, a key town that leads to the southern suburbs of Beirut, security sources said.
Two people were wounded including the driver, who was in critical condition, the sources said. He was undergoing surgery at the Kamal Jumblatt Hospital.
Recalling the moments before the attack, driver Hussein Deeb Msheik told police the suicide bomber appeared “unusually” bloated, according to the sources.
“I asked: Why are you so bloated?” Msheik said. “Two minutes later there was an explosion.”
A Lebanese Red Cross official on site, who chose to remain anonymous, told The Daily Star that the suicide bomber was allegedly trying to coerce Msheik to take a certain route. When the driver resisted, he detonated the explosives belt, indicating that the gas station had not been the intended target.
Amal al-Ahmadiye, who had gotten out of the van and was crossing the street at the time of the explosion, was injured in her right leg as a result. She was discharged from the Kamal Jumblatt Hospital a few hours later.
The sources said the passenger van had not been the bomber’s original target.
The attacker had apparently tried to board a taxi in the area. “When I saw the man was armed I refused to let him in the car and I sped off,” the taxi driver, who refused to be identified, told police. “But I saw him get on board a van in my side mirror and moments later I saw the explosion.”
The bomber’s head was severed in the explosion and was found amid the debris near the local Richani Gas Station. The owner of the gas station handed surveillance cameras to security forces.
Tensions were high at the site of the blast as Army soldiers and members of the Internal Security Forces hurried to cordon off the area. Amal Movement party-affiliated Al-Risalah paramedics inspected the suicide bomber’s body and transported the remains to the Bahman Hospital in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Amal members also blocked the roads around the blast site, where the mangled passenger van lay. Several cars were damaged in the blast.Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told a local television station Monday that at least 10 percent of cars being stolen in Lebanon were being sent to Syria, where they were being fitted with explosives and brought back to Lebanon to be detonated.
“There are approximately 550 cars that were stolen over the span of seven months,” Charbel said, adding that most of them were SUVs, necessary to traverse the rugged border lands without being detected.
“The series of bombings will continue, and the situation is very difficult, and the security forces are doing the impossible,” he said, adding that the reason for the bombings was the conflict in Syria.
The minister also said that the recent phenomena of suicide bombers had to be dealt with through guidance in schools, mosques and the media.
The bombing came just two days after another suicide attack in Hermel.
Al-Qaeda-linked groups have claimed responsibility for several bombings in the country, warning of further attacks unless Hezbollah ends its military campaign in neighboring Syria.
Military Prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr assigned the Army Intelligence, the Military Police and forensic experts to investigate the bombing, and to conduct DNA tests on the remains of the suicide bomber, whose facial features were relatively untouched by the blast.
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman called on military and security services as well as the judiciary to “track down the perpetrators of the bombings that occur on Lebanese territory, and to prosecute and arrest them and refer them to the necessary court.”
Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Ammar condemned Monday’s bombing and called for the quick formation of a government and for rallying around the Lebanese Army. “We can face terrorists by strengthening the security institutions, and pressuring the nations that support them under the name of supporting the [Syrian] opposition,” Ammar said.
The British Embassy in Lebanon also condemned the bombing, calling it a “callous act” and an “attempt to terrorize and divide Lebanese civilians.”
Also Monday, a stun grenade was tossed by unknown assailants at the Cola roundabout in Beirut’s southern suburbs, near the Saleem Salam Bridge, which caused damage to a number of nearby cars.
The Lebanese Army subsequently closed the road from the Cola roundabout leading to Al-Tariq al-Jadideh.