BEIRUT: Security fears gripped the Lebanese as the pace of terror attacks increased dramatically with a suspected suicide bombing that struck Beirut’s southern suburbs Tuesday, killing four people, including a teenage girl, and wounding 46 others.
Tuesday’s car bombing was the fourth in Lebanon as many weeks. It was also the latest attack targeting Hezbollah and drawing the country deeper into the conflict in neighboring Syria.
The explosion on the bustling Al-Arid Street in Haret Hreik occurred around 11 a.m. just meters from the site of a car bombing earlier in the month that was claimed by the Al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
Tuesday’s attack was claimed by the Nusra Front in Lebanon, an offshoot of Syria’s Nusra Front that is blacklisted by the United States 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.
In an escalation of Syria-related violence, four car bombings, including suicide attacks, have rattled Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, since July, killing nearly 40 people, in addition to a twin suicide explosion targeting the Iranian Embassy in Beirut that killed 30 people and wounded over 150. The attacks, claimed by Al-Qaeda-linked groups, came in response to Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad.
Tuesday’s bombing drew nationwide condemnation from rival leaders with calls for national unity to face growing threats from militant and takfiri groups bent on punishing Hezbollah for supporting the Assad regime.
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.” 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 residents 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.”
The circumstances surrounding the bombing were unclear.
The Army, in a statement, said a Kia Sportage SUV had been rigged with explosives, adding that the 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 had been 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 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 also said that it was difficult to implement security measures in a crowded area such as Beirut’s southern suburbs:
“How can we search every vehicle that enters Beirut’s southern suburbs? I would need to deploy 5,000 security personnel.”