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French Version

Three dead as bombs hit buses near Beirut

Attack spurs fears of lethal new focus on private citizens

Two bombs ripped through two mini-buses packed with passengers on Tuesday, killing at least three people and wounding 23 others in the first direct attack on civilians in a country reeling from two years of political assassinations and one day ahead of the second anniversary of the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Residents of the Christian village of Ain Alaq in the mountainous Metn region awoke to two bomb blasts and the sight of ruptured buses and staggering, blood-soaked passengers.

"Oh my god, it was terrifying!" cried Kusumawathie Singhalge of Sri Lanka, who was one of 50 passengers on their way to work as their buses exploded.

Singhalge was one of the lucky ones, sustaining a slight head wound and temporary loss of hearing.

"Blood everywhere and people screaming," she said as she sat huddled next to her sister inside a nearby pharmacy that saw an unexpected rush of wounded and shocked passengers seeking medical aid.

But perhaps the most shocking aspect of Tuesday's attack was that it was the first bombing since the Hariri assassination that targeted average citizens instead of high-profile political figures. Many Lebanese were reminded of a shooting attack on a bus in 1975 that propelled the country into its 15-year Civil War.

According to security sources, the two vehicles were en route from the village of Ain Alaq, near Bikfaya, to Beirut when the first bomb exploded at 8:51 a.m. inside a white bus carrying 26 passengers. Approximately 10 minutes later, a second bomb, attached to the undercarriage of a blue bus carrying 24 passengers, detonated.

The second bus was parked a short distance from the first due to a traffic jam caused by the initial blast.

The bomb blasts left puddles of blood, shredded seats, torn clothes and abandoned bags, purses and shoes - all spilled over from the destroyed buses - on the street.

Security officers and police dogs were seen at the bomb site shortly after the attack, searching for clues throughout the cordoned off scene.

Forensic investigators onsite said that the first bomb was "inside" the white bus, while the second bomb was put under the blue bus. Both explosives were estimated to have weighed around 1 kilogram.

The two buses were estimated to have been about "six car lengths apart" at the time of the initial attack.

A security source told The Daily Star that the attack was "a well-coordinated bombing operation," as the second bomb detonated almost exactly 10 minutes after the first.

The latest bombing triggered frightening memories of the series of bombings dating back two years that targeted Christian neighborhoods around the capital. But observers agreed that Tuesday's blasts were considerably different as they targeted civilians directly, while previous attacks had been carried out against general areas and/or detonated at odd hours that appeared aimed at instilling fear rather than loss of life.

Metn MP Michel Murr told The Daily Star that the latest attack was a "political message" to both the opposition and loyalist parties.

"The bombs are a warning to both camps that enough is enough," Murr said.

"Both sides need to sit down together and agree on a solution," he added. "The opposition needs to get out of the street and the loyalists need to take responsibility for what is happening in the country; at that point we can reach an actual solution."

Murr, a member of the opposition, said the only way out of the current crisis was internal dialogue.

"Every time there is a problem in this country, they bring in 10 countries to solve it instead of sitting down for 10 minutes at a table together to discuss a possible solution," he added.

Ain Alaq is near Bikfaya, the hometown of former President Amin Gemayel, whose son, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, was assassinated by gunmen in November.

Judicial sources told The Daily Star that dozens of witnesses had said a "suspicious-looking" man had boarded the first bus carrying a large bag, but there were conflicting reports as to whether he got off before the blast.

A passenger told The Daily Star that a man "carrying a big garbage bag" had boarded the bus but left the bag behind as he disembarked.

A judicial source said that "most probably" the bombs had been set off by a timer rather than remote control. Earlier reports had said the bombs were detonated by remote.

"Nowhere is safe in Lebanon anymore," said Joe Khoury, owner of the Chez George restaurant located near the scene of the attack.

"There were people with a leg missing and others with bloody faces. It was just horrible," he said, echoing the horror of other witnesses. "They targeted poor and simple workers this time. What is next?"

Beirut 14-02-2007
Rym Ghazal
The Daily Star

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