BEIRUT: A suicide bomber blew himself up Friday morning at a police checkpoint on the Beirut-Damascus highway in east Lebanon, killing one police officer and wounding 32 people.
General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim said he narrowly escaped the attack in Dahr al-Baidar after the blast went off just 200 meters away from his convoy.
"The explosion in Dahr al-Baidar occurred moments after the convoy I was in passed through the checkpoint," Ibrahim told a local television station.
Hours later, the Lebanese Army released a photo of a man suspected of being the suicide bomber behind the explosion, asking citizens with information to come forward, a security source told The Daily Star.
In a statement, the Internal Security Forces said they had received information that a terrorist group was planning to carry out an attack in Beirut and other areas on June 20.
On his way from the Bekaa to Beirut, the suicide bomber stopped in the eastern village of Sofar for coffee, a security source told The Daily Star. The shop owner immediately contacted police after he noticed the customer was too nervous.
The bomber then made his way to Aley but raced back to the Bekaa after security forces intercepted his vehicle.
At the Dahr al-Baidar checkpoint, police officers cut off the road with a pick-up truck, the source said.
"As soon as the vehicle arrived at the police checkpoint, officers asked the driver to step out [of the vehicle], he then blew himself up,” the ISF said.
The source denied that Ibrahim was the target of the Dahr al-Baidar attack.
Another security source told The Daily Star that security agencies had received intelligence that members from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) were preparing a suicide attack in Lebanon.
Jihadists groups fighting in Syria have claimed responsibility for previous car bombing attacks targeting Beirut’s southern suburbs, in retaliation for Hezbollah’s role in Syria.
The Interior Ministry said seven security personnel were among the wounded in the explosion, which occurred around 11:30 a.m. The Health Ministry said the one person was killed and 32 others wounded.
The sources said that most casualties were from a civilian van caught in the blast, while the man killed was Mahmoud Jamaleddine, 49, a warrant officer in the Internal Security Forces.
Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr, who arrived to the site of the bombing, said the 4WD vehicle was rigged with at least 25 kilograms of explosives.
ISF chief Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Basbous said the vehicle was originally headed to Beirut but security forces grew suspicious of the Nissan Murano at a certain location, "prompting the driver to return to the Bekaa."
"Members of the Internal Security Forces at the checkpoint stopped the vehicle and the driver blew himself up as police officers were searching car," Basbous told reporters upon his arrival to the site of the deadly blast.
After the blast, security forces blocked several roads in the capital, including the airport road and those leading to Speaker Nabih Berri's residence in Ain al-Tineh, Hamra, Verdun, the Kuwaiti Embassy, UNESCO, as well as the military hospital, the NNA reported.
The attack came an hour after the ISF's Information Branch raided a hotel in Beirut looking for terror suspects, with a senior security source saying that police were “working on thwarting a big security plot.”
In its statement, the ISF said they apprehended 17 people at a hotel in Beirut who are now being interrogated.
Speaking to a local television, Ibrahim said security agencies had been on high alert since the early hours of the morning to prevent a “possible terrorist attack.”
“All security chiefs are targets and the war is between us and terrorism,” he said.
Ibrahim told Reuters that security officials had information that Sunni militants were aiming to assassinate him.
Earlier in the day, Berri’s Amal Movement canceled a planned conference over unspecified security threats. After the blast, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale called off his scheduled meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil for similar reasons.
Friday’s bombing shattered near three-months of calm after a Lebanese Army-led security plan curbed a series of bombings that hit the country over the past year.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam called for an urgent security meeting at the Grand Serail in light of the bombing and security fears.
The meeting affirmed that the country would continue the implementation of the government-commissioned security plan, launched April 1, and impose stricter measures to foil future terror plots.
"Salam said today's events aim to destabilize the country after the success of the security plan,” Mohammad Kheir, the general-secretary of the Higher Defense Council, told reporters at the end of the meeting.
"[Salam] asked concerned ministers and security officials to remain on high alert and carry out their national duties to foil plots to mess with the country's security.”
Salam also said that Friday's attack should be an incentive for political parties to reactivate the work of constitutional institutions to fortify Lebanon.