HARET HREIK/BEIRUT: A suspected suicide bombing killed at least four people including a teenage girl and wounded 46 others in a southern suburb of Beirut Tuesday, a security source said, in the latest attack claimed by an anti-Hezbollah Al-Qaeda-linked group.
The explosion on the bustling Al-Arid Street in Haret Hreik occurred around 11 a.m. just meters from the site of an explosion earlier in the month in the suburb that was claimed by the Al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Tuesday’s attack was claimed by the Nusra Front in Lebanon, an offshoot of Syria’s Nusra Front that is blacklisted by the U.S. as a terrorist group.
“We were able to respond to the massacres committed by Iran's party [Hezbollah] against the children of Syria and of Arsal [in northeast Lebanon] with a suicide operation that targeted the heart of its southern suburbs,” a statement posted on the group’s Twitter account said.
Locals had been startled by a motorist who was speeding in the area moments before the attack.
“We saw a car that was speeding. The driver was honking like a mad man,” Kamal Hijazi, the owner of a mini market located meters from where the explosion took place, told The Daily Star.
“Seconds later, we saw the explosion which sent the vehicle flying up in the air,” he added.
The National News Agency identified the four victims as Maria Jawhari, a teenager, Ahmad al-Abidi, Ali Ibrahim Bashir, and Khodr Srour.
The blast, which sent plumes of smoke into the Beirut skyline, set fire to a number of floors of a residential building in the suburb. Security forces, backed by residents, removed damaged vehicles on the road, clearing a path for the fire brigade to douse the flames.
A number of locals said they rushed to the scene of the explosion as soon as they heard the blast.
“There are no Hezbollah offices here. Only innocent people,” a local woman, Hoda, said.
“We’re getting used to these explosions but what can we do,” she said.
A series of bombings including suicide attacks have targeted Beirut's southern suburbs since July of last year. Most of them have been claimed by Syrian rebel groups in retaliation for Hezbollah's military involvement in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad.
The circumstances surrounding Tuesday’s attack were unclear.
The Army, in a statement, said a four-wheel-drive Kia Sportage was rigged with explosives, adding that Military Police inspected the blast scene as well as remains found near the vehicle “as part of efforts to determine the nature and circumstances surrounding the explosion.”
The blast resulted from the detonation of three 120 and 130 millimeter mortar bombs in the vehicle estimated to weigh 15 kilograms, the Army said in a second statement, adding that an explosives belt that had not detonated was also found near human remains at the scene.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, during a brief chat with reporters, said the vehicle was rigged with explosives and a suicide bomber was involved but had failed to detonate his explosives belt.
Referring to a preliminary investigation, the source said a man, suspected of being involved in the attack, stepped out of a Kia Sportage moments before the blast. His remains were found at the scene.
The military said the Kia had been stolen from a person identified as Kallas Youssef Kallas and that security agencies had been sent notices with the vehicle’s description.
The 2010-model car was stolen in October 2013, the source said.
It was found at the blast site carrying a stolen license plate, originally belonging to a Toyota registered in the name of Sama Wafi Biyazed, the source added.
A high-ranking security source said later Tuesday that authorities identified two people involved in the theft of vehicles that were used in the Haret Hreik attack as well as another Kia Sportage used in last week’s bombing in Hermel, northeast Lebanon.
Nabil Musawi, who was already in police custody, confessed he was part of a ring specialized in stealing Kia Sportage vehicles including the two used in the previous attacks, the source said.
Musawi’s statement led to the arrest of another member of the ring, the source added.
Charbel said security agencies had a list of suspected vehicles that could be used in similar attacks.
"We have a list of explosive-rigged vehicles. Sometimes we find them and foil the attack but other times we don't [find them]," he said.
He also said that it was difficult to implement security measures in a crowded area such as Beirut’s southern suburbs, saying: “How can we search every vehicle that enters Beirut's southern suburbs? I would need to deploy 5,000 security personnel.”
The relatives of the wounded from Tuesday’s attack rushed to the Bahman and Al-Rassoul Al-Azam hospitals to check on their loved ones.
“My uncle was directing traffic in the area when the blast occurred,” the nephew of police officer Abbas Termos told The Daily Star, anxiously waiting at the entrance of Bahman Hospital.
“They [the perpetrators] think they are making us afraid but they are making us stronger,” Termos said.
The Army called on relatives of the missing in the explosion to undergo DNA testing at the Al-Rassoul al-Azam Hospital.