August 14, 2008

Bombing of Bus Kills 18 and Wounds 40


By Robert F. Worth

The New York Times

TRIPOLI, Lebanon

A bomb hidden in a briefcase tore through a bus packed with Lebanese army soldiers on their way to work Wednesday morning, killing 18 people, including nine soldiers, and wounding more than 40 people.

The bombing overshadowed news from Damascus that Syria and Lebanon would establish diplomatic relations for the first time since each country achieved independence from France in the 1940s. The announcement, at the start of a fence-mending mission by President Michel Suleiman of Lebanon, did not specify when the countries would exchange ambassadors.

The Tripoli bombing was the deadliest attack in Lebanon in more than three years. It left a scene of carnage at rush hour in the crowded commercial center of the northern city at a bus stop where army soldiers were known to catch buses to their posts farther south every morning.

"When we heard the blast, we wanted to hide," said Izzat Doghbi, the owner of a juice stand about 100 yards away. "I walked over and found a disaster - bodies on the ground, some mangled, some wounded. It was awful."

The explosion occurred amid relative political calm here, after a new power-sharing deal among Lebanon's divided factions in May. But tensions have lingered in Tripoli, where the Lebanese army killed many Islamist militants during a battle that raged for months last year in a Palestinian refugee camp.

The bomb was left in a briefcase on the street next to the bus, at a depot, the army said. It appears to have been aimed at the army, widely viewed as the closest thing to a neutral force in Lebanon's divided political scene. All but one of the people wounded were soldiers, the army said.

No one claimed responsibility. Many suspected the attack was staged by an al-Qaida- inspired group to avenge a 2007 military offensive. Some questioned whether it was an attempt to disrupt a trip by Lebanon's Suleiman to Syria later in the day to patch up relations between the neighboring nations.

Some Lebanese political figures said the bombing may have been revenge for the army's role in Nahr el-Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp. Fatah Islam, the Islamist group that fought the army there last year, has claimed responsibility for several small attacks on soldiers since then, including one that killed a soldier near Tripoli on May 31.

The group's leader, Shaker al-Absi, was never caught. Earlier this year, an Islamist Web site released an audiotape in which a man said to be al-Absi threatened to "hunt down" the followers of Suleiman, who was commander in chief of the army during the operation at Nahr el-Bared.

On Monday, about 200 wives and other relatives of men arrested during the battle at Nahr el-Bared protested outside Roumieh Prison, where the men are being held. Some of the detainees began a hunger strike last week.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other Lebanese political figures vowed that the bombing Wednesday would not intimidate the army or Lebanon's new Cabinet, which the parliament formally approved Tuesday.

Syria has often been accused of playing a role in the string of political bombings that began with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. But there were few if any such accusations on Wednesday. Syria and its Lebanese allies - led by Hezbollah - have strengthened their position here in recent months, and few seemed to think Syria would have any reason to strike at the Lebanese army.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


No one claimed responsibility for the bomb that killed 18 people Wednesday morning in Lebanon. Many suspected the attack was staged by an al-Qaida-inspired group to avenge a 2007 military offensive.

Originally published by BY ROBERT F. WORTH.

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