HERMEL, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army vowed to fight on against terrorism as early investigations into the latest suicide bombing that targeted the military near Hermel indicated that the explosives-laden car had been rigged in Syria.
“Once again, the Army pays the price of combating terrorism and seeking to preserve civil peace,” the military said in a statement hours after the explosion.
The Army vowed to carry on its fight against terrorism “regardless of the sacrifices,” urging the public to rally around the military.
A suicide car bombing targeting an Army post in the northeastern town of Hermel killed three people, including two soldiers, and wounded 17 others Saturday, a security source told The Daily Star. Hermel is one of several areas associated with Hezbollah.
The Lebanon branch of the Nusra Front, a radical Syrian rebel force, claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing, saying it was part of a “series of vengeful attacks.”
The group, listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, has vowed to carry out attacks in Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah’s continued military role in Syria.
Saturday’s bombing was the second such attack last week, following twin suicide bombings near the Iranian Cultural Center south of Beirut.
The Lebanese Army Sunday released photos of the soldiers killed, who were identified as 25-year-old officer Elias Khoury from the eastern town of Zahle and Hamzeh Faitruny, 26, from Baalbek.
Mohammad Ayyoub, 50, was also killed in the explosion. Four soldiers were among those wounded.
“Hamzeh saved his companions from certain death when he tried to stop the suicide bomber,” his father Riad Faitruny said.
“For that, he gained the honor of martyrdom and sacrifice in defense of Lebanon, which has given me some peace with the separation,” Faitruny added.
Khoury had brandished his gun after the suicide bomber refused to comply with military intelligence officers who wanted to search his black Grand Cherokee, which did not have a license plate.
The suicide bomber detonated the car after an officer asked him to turn on the inside light and park on the side of the road to be searched.
The bomb left a meter-deep crater and sent the car behind it, which was driven by Ayoub, tumbling 20 meters through the air. The Lebanese Army said the bomb contained 125 kilograms of explosives while a security source said the 1994 Grand Cherokee was most likely smuggled in from Syria.
The explosion damaged a number of nearby shops and residential buildings and set ablaze several vehicles. Security forces cordoned off the site of the deadly blast and opened an alternative road for residents to enter the town.
Ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the scene of the explosion, which occurred at around 7 p.m.
Military prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr tasked the military police with collecting evidence and beginning DNA tests on the human remains found at the site of the attack.
A security source told The Daily Star that the authorities had been on alert after receiving a report of a suspicious Jeep in the Northern Bekaa Valley that was believed to be rigged with explosives. Officers at the checkpoint had permitted smaller vehicles known to local residents to pass through the area quickly, which limited traffic at the checkpoint and reduced casualties.
The force of the explosion scattered the remains of the SUV as far as 300 meters from its center.
Officers continued to comb the area for clues.
The authorities struggled Sunday to find traces of the suicide bomber as he was “scattered into tiny pieces,” making it difficult to collect samples for DNA testing, a security expert told The Daily Star.
But CCTV footage from the area showed the Cherokee passing in front of a nearby cafe with its sides covered in sand and mud, suggesting the vehicle had been driven from the eastern mountain range adjacent to the rebel-held area of Yabroud in Syria on one of a number of roads used by smugglers.
Investigators also found a driver’s license and forged ID card with the name Abbas Saleh, supposedly from the village of Brital near Hermel. The image on the ID card, which would have likely identified the suicide bomber, was burned off in the explosion.
The Army intensified its presence on the Baalbek- Hermel road and other thoroughfares in the Northern Bekaa after details emerged of another car that was accompanying the Cherokee but had since disappeared.
Aid officials surveyed the area for damage. An entertainment park nearby was severely hit by the blast, which occurred only a few minutes after about 40 children left the premises following a birthday party.
President Michel Sleiman offered his condolences to the families of the victims and said the Army had become the main target of terrorist acts.
He also called on the military and security forces to be more determined to face terrorism and safeguard the country.
This is the third suicide attack this year in Hermel. The most recent explosion was on Feb. 1 when a suicide car bomber killed four people in an incident also claimed by the Nusra Front in Lebanon.
“The Army will not end its fight against those trying to harm Lebanon and will continue working to uncover terrorist networks and pursuing the perpetrators regardless of the sacrifices,” the military said in a statement released hours after the explosion.
The Army has recently arrested several suspects belonging to Al-Qaeda-linked groups, including the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Nusra Front.
The attack drew condemnations over the weekend, with the U.N. vowing to continue its support for Lebanon and its military during “these difficult times.”
Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the suicide bombing, calling on the public to rally around the Lebanese Army.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri expressed his full solidarity with the Army and security forces in their mission to maintain security and stability, in a phone call with Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi.
Hezbollah said Saturday’s attack demonstrated that such terrorism did not discriminate among Lebanese and posed a threat to the entire country.
“This latest crime is only proof that ... terrorism does not need justifications or reasons to carry out its crimes. It kills, slaughters, marginalizes and destroys without discriminating between soldiers and civilians or between people belonging to one sect or another in Lebanon,” Hezbollah said in a statement.
The U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly strongly condemned the attack and extended his condolences to the Lebanese Army and to the families of the victims.
“The Special Coordinator reiterated the U.N.’s support for Lebanon and its Army during these difficult times and hoped that all those responsible for today’s bombing and all other acts of terrorism will be brought to justice as soon as possible,” according to his office.
British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher also condemned the attack, saying his country would help rebuild the checkpoint and offer protective kits to the Army.
“Appalled that our [Lebanese] Army allies [were] hit by cowardly terrorism tonight. We’ll help rebuild Hermel checkpoint+offer $500,000 of protective kit,” Fletcher tweeted.
The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon also condemned the bombing, saying an attack on the Army was “an attack on all Lebanese,” on its Twitter.