BEIRUT: Investigators intensified efforts Tuesday to determine the identity of a suicide bomber who blew himself up on board a passenger van south of Beirut a day earlier, with one security source saying he was a Syrian national.
Meanwhile, Army Intelligence continued to interrogate taxi driver Issa Ghosn, a stateless resident of Lebanon who dropped the suicide bomber off in the town of Shoueifat, where he blew himself up shortly after, wounding the bus driver as well as a passerby.
Ghosn told interrogators he picked up the suicide bomber from Khaldeh, south of Beirut, outside Chamsine Bakeries, a popular bakery in the area, security sources said.
The bomber asked to be taken to Shoueifat, Ghosn told investigators. He also asked about directions to a factory that refills butane bottles in Bir Hasan, a neighborhood in south Beirut.
Ghosn said he was scared when he noticed that the bomber had an AK-47 and asked him to get out of his cab near the Richani gas station in Shoueifat. The driver told the bomber there were several vans there that could take him to his destination.
Interrogators kept Ghosn in custody because he had failed to report the incident, the sources said, pointing out that the taxi driver should have notified authorities that a man holding an AK-47 was asking for directions to a factory in Bir Hasan.
The sources said that investigators found broken pieces of the Soviet-made weapon at the crime scene and that police were analyzing footage from CCTV cameras in the area.
Military Prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr ordered for the explosion site to be reopened to traffic after forensic experts finished their work.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel confirmed that interrogation of Ghosn was ongoing.
“Nothing can be said before [police] complete 24 hours of interrogation,” Charbel informed The Daily Star.
Charbel said he could not yet confirm whether Ghosn was linked to the bomber.
In separate remarks to a local media outlet, Charbel said he believed the suicide bomber was heading to Beirut’s southern suburbs, which lie just north of Shoueifat. A wave of attacks, including suicide bombings, have recently targeted the area where Hezbollah enjoys wide support.
Most were claimed by radical Syrian rebel groups that said the attacks were in retaliation for Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, which they are fighting alongside President Bashar Assad.
The Nusra Front in Lebanon, an offshoot of the radical Syrian rebel group, claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack.
One security source told The Daily Star the bomber was Syrian.
Hussein Deeb Msheik, the 22-year-old driver of the van, suffered serious wounds from Monday’s attack. However, his health has since improved, and his doctor said Tuesday that he was in a stable condition. Interrogators have already taken Msheik’s testimony.
Msheik “is out of the danger zone after successful surgeries to the liver, lungs and abdominal wall,” surgeon Mohammad Idriss at Rasoul Aazam Hospital told The Daily Star.
Idriss said Msheik underwent surgery to treat tendon injuries to his hands and severe gashes on both of his legs. Originally sent to Kamal Jumblatt Hospital in Shoueifat, he was transferred to the Rasoul Aazam Hospital in Beirut’s southern suburbs later Tuesday.
Msheik’s father, Deeb Msheik, said his son told him that the bomber blew himself up after his son threatened to hand the man over to a nearby Army post because he was suspicious of the unusually “bloated” passenger. Deeb said his son stopped the van and was getting out of it when the bomber detonated his explosive belt.
Sayyed Hashem Safieddine, the head of Hezbollah’s executive council, said that ongoing attacks against the party’s supporters would not push them to abandon resistance.
“These stupid people are disillusioned if they think that with a suicide bomber here and a crazy man there they can alter the balance or affect this society [of resistance],” Safieddine said during a ceremony in the south Beirut suburb of Ghobeiri.
“This is because we are a society that knows how to transform injustice and aggression into resistance, strength,” Safieddine added.
The United States condemned the Shoueifat bombing Monday.
“The Lebanese people should not have to live in fear as they conduct their daily lives. All parties in Lebanon must exercise restraint and refrain from contributing to the cycle of violence,” said Jen Psaki, the spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State.
“We would again call for the full implementation of the Baabda declaration, U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, and the Taif agreement.”
Separately, Investigative Judge Nabil Wehbe issued an arrest warrant Tuesday for detained Sheikh Omar Atrash over his alleged involvement in several car bombings that have rocked Beirut’s southern suburbs and attacks targeting the Lebanese Army.
The arrest warrant was issued against Atrash on charges of recruiting individuals to join armed terrorist groups, detonating bombs and vehicle rigged with explosives as well as bringing weapons and rockets from Syria into Lebanon.
A judicial source told The Daily Star that Wehbe postponed Atrash’s interrogation, which was scheduled for Tuesday, after his attorney Tarek Shindob requested the annulment of statements obtained from the suspect, arguing they were made under duress due to treatment constituting torture. No date has been set for the next interrogation session. – Additional reporting by Dana Khraiche