BEIRUT: Lebanon sank deeper into the wider regional turmoil Thursday when a suspected suicide car bombing ripped through Beirut’s southern suburbs, killing at least five people and wounding more than 70, the latest in a series of deadly attacks targeting Hezbollah’s stronghold that reflected the country’s drift toward the war in Syria.
Political analysts and March 14 Lebanese leaders blamed Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad’s forces for the wave of car bombings that has struck Hezbollah’s areas in the southern suburbs as well as the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in the past few months.
Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem warned that Lebanon was threatened with destruction unless rival factions agreed on the formation of a new Cabinet. “ Lebanon is on the road to destruction unless we work on a political understanding,” he told Al-Manar TV station.
Thursday’s blast was the second in less than a week after a car bomb explosion killed former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah, a political adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, along with seven others in Downtown Beirut.
While the Health Ministry confirmed that at least five people were killed and 77 others were wounded in the explosion, a judicial source told The Daily Star that “DNA tests are being conducted on human remains that have yet to be identified.”
Four of the five dead were identified as Iman Hijazi and her step-daughter Malak Zahwa, Adnan Awali and Ali Khadra.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said human remains inside the vehicle used in the explosion suggested a suicide bomber may have been involved.
Remains of the alleged suicide bomber, showing the upper part of his body and some features of his face and head, were transported by a military police vehicle to Bahman Hospital in Haret Hreik.
The 4:15 p.m. blast in Haret Hreik, a densely populated area, sent plumes of black smoke above the Beirut skyline as ambulances and paramedics rushed to rescue victims.
Parked vehicles and several buildings in the commercial, residential area were severely damaged in the blast. Some buildings’ facades were torn off by the explosion.Outraged residents flocked to the area to help pull out the dead and wounded from under the rubble. However, minutes after the explosion gunshots were fired in the air to disperse the crowds.
The Lebanese Army also urged citizens to evacuate the area, fearing another explosion.
The Army said preliminary investigations indicated that 20 kilograms of explosives were used in the Haret Hreik bombing.
“The results of preliminary investigations by military experts at the site of the explosion that occurred in Haret Hreik – Al-Arid Street – in the afternoon today [Thursday] show that the blast was caused by 20 kilograms of explosives that were distributed in a 1993, dark green Grand Cherokee Jeep carrying the license plate number G341580,” the military said in a statement.
It added that an investigation was underway to determine how the bomb was detonated.
The original owner of the vehicle was identified as Hala Othman from Baalbek, east Lebanon, a security source told The Daily Star.
President Michel Sleiman and other leaders condemned the bombing and called for national unity to foil attempts to destabilize the country. “The terrorist hand that struck the southern suburbs is the same hand that planted crime, killings and destruction in all Lebanese areas,” he said in a statement.
Speaker Nabih Berri said the “terrorist bombing” in Haret Hreik was part of “a conspiracy” against Lebanon’s unity and its citizens. “The hands that assassinated [former] Minister Mohammad Shatah are the same hands that detonated bombs in the [southern] suburbs and in Tripoli,” he added.
Hariri also denounced the Haret Hreik bombing, but indirectly blamed Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria. “The innocent citizens of the Beirut suburbs are victims of terrorist crimes that have been targeting them for months. At the same time, they are victims of the involvement in foreign wars, especially the Syrian war,” he said in a statement.
Political analysts also blamed Hezbollah’s role in Syria for the car bombings in Lebanon. “ Lebanon is paying the price of a regional bloody ping-pong game. This game will continue because there is no single chance for any regional summit to bring about political solutions to the conflicts in the region,” Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Universite Saint Joseph, told The Daily Star. He was apparently referring to soaring tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back opposing sides in the Syrian war.
Nader said the Haret Hreik bombing was in response to Shatah’s assassination and also to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s military crackdown on Sunni tribes in the city of Anbar. “The bombing in the southern suburbs is part of the Sunni-Shiite war raging on in three Arab Levant countries: Syria, Iraq and Lebanon,” Nader added. “It is also part of an exchange of bloody messages between regional intelligence agencies.”
Nizar Abdel-Qader, a retired Lebanese Army general, linked the Haret Hreik blast to Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.
Recalling previous attacks on the southern suburbs that were linked to the war in Syria, Abdel-Qader told The Daily Star: “There are groups that have been harmed by Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. They are retaliating for this intervention by subversive and terrorist attacks in pro-Hezbollah areas.”
He voiced fears that the country was threatened with more car bombings and assassinations of political figures aimed at destabilizing Lebanon.
The blast was condemned by the U.N. Security Council and Western states. “We condemn today's terrorist bombing in Dahieh, Beirut. Our condolences to the victims and their families,” the U.S. Embassy said on its Twitter account.
Britain also condemned the attack. “The U.K. government is already providing security assistance and is fully committed to supporting the future stability of Lebanon,” Foreign Office Minister Hugh Robertson said.
In Paris, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “France reiterates his commitment to Lebanon’s stability and calls on all the Lebanese to work to avoid an escalation of violence and preserve national unity.”