HERMEL/BEIRUT: A suicide bomber killed four people and wounded 43 others in a bustling neighborhood in Hermel Thursday, a security source told The Daily Star, with Nusra Front in Lebanon claiming responsibility.
The 8:55 a.m. blast occurred as people made their way to work during the morning rush hour near Hermel’s government building in a residential and commercial neighborhood of the northeastern town.
Shaken by the attack, the first of its kind in Hermel in years, Maha Alwa described the blast as “horrible.”
Her husband was driving her to the clothes shop she owns, located in the blast site, when the suspected suicide bomber drove past them.
“He’s a man in his 20s, with short and shabby hair,” she told The Daily Star. “After he passed several other cars, he parked his vehicle near a bank and a man who was sitting beside him stepped out of the car and walked away.
“Shortly after, the explosion went off.”
Hermel Mayor Sobhi Saqr said he initially thought the blast was the result of “the usual rocket attacks” that target Hermel. “I was on my way to work when I heard the explosion that shook my vehicle.”
“The bombing took place near the government building, several banks and other services-based companies. It is a very crowded area,” he said. “They wanted to kill as many civilians as possible. This was not a political attack.”
The dead were identified as Hussein Ali Omar, who works at Hermel’s municipality, a woman from the Harmoush family, and Syrian worker Hussein Nayef. The remains of two other unidentified bodies – one of which is presumed to be that of the suicide bomber, according to a source – were also found at the blast site. Two of the wounded are in critical condition.
Nusra Front in Lebanon, an offshoot of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group of the same name in Syria, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for the involvement in Syria of Hezbollah, which enjoys broad support in Hermel.
“[We] shook a stronghold of Iran’s party in Hermel with a suicide bombing spearheaded by one of Nusra Front in Lebanon’s men in response to what the group is committing as crimes against Sunni women and children in Syria,” the group said on its Twitter feed. Located near Lebanon’s northern border with Syria, Hermel is home to around 50,000 people, mainly Shiites. The town and its surroundings also host many Hezbollah military and social centers.
In the aftermath of the blast, plumes of smoke covered Hermel’s skyline, with debris, shrapnel and remains of bodies scattered everywhere.
Ambulances rushed to the scene of the explosion, where first aid personnel evacuated the wounded. While many civilians scrambled to leave the area, some helped firefighters put out the fire from the car bomb. The blast inflicted great damage on shops in the area.
A second security source said the rigged car was a black four-wheel drive Kia that was owned by Nazrat Shahenian, a Lebanese of Armenian descent, before being stolen from Antelias around two months ago.
The source said authorities were pursuing the man who was seen stepping out of the vehicle shortly before the blast, and who was probably giving the suicide bomber driving directions.
Another source familiar with the investigation said CCTV cameras in the neighborhood would be of great use for investigators.
Nothing was left of the suicide bomber apart from limbs, the source said, and the investigation will now focus on revealing his identity.
Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr tasked the directorate of the Army Intelligence, the military police and forensic experts with carrying out preliminary investigation. His aide Kamal Nassar examined the site of the explosion along with forensic and explosive experts.
Despite a wave of bombings in Beirut and Tripoli over the last year linked to the war in Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting rebels alongside government forces, this is the first explosion to take place in Hermel.
The attack comes two weeks after a suicide bomber killed five people in Haret Hreik in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where Hezbollah also enjoys wide support. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria claimed responsibility for that attack and vowed to undertake more against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Two car bombs also hit the capital’s southern suburbs last year, killing 30 people and wounding hundreds.
Since last spring, Hermel has been the target of rocket attacks, most of which have been claimed by Syrian rebel groups and described as retaliation for Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria.
Separately, the Army said in a statement that two rockets fired from Syria landed in Ras Baalbek at 5:15 p.m., leaving no casualties. – Additional reporting by Jana al-Hassan