(photo credit: Courtesy)
A bomb ripped through a bus carrying civilians and members of the military during the Wednesday morning rush hour in the northern city of Tripoli, killing 18 people and wounding 46, security officials said.
The officials said the dead included 10 off-duty soldiers.
The bomb was planted on the side of a main street and went off as the bus passed by. The streets were filled with people heading to work, which contributed to the many casualties, the officials said.
The blast raised suspicions that al-Qaida-inspired Islamic terrorists may have sought revenge on the military for clashes last year at a nearby Palestinian refugee camp.
But some local speculated the blast may be aimed at undermining a visit later Wednesday by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to Syria to patch up stormy relations between the neighbors - the first visit by a Lebanese president to Syria in three years.
Extremists "are trying to push Lebanon into a new kind of war between moderation and extremism" that could ultimately lead to "a Shi'ite-Sunni armed conflict in Lebanon," a Lebanese parliamentarian from the Western-backed March 14th coalition told The Jerusalem Post following yesterday's attack.
"I don't think this goal will be achieved," he added. "People that want instability in Lebanon are playing these cardsâ€¦I don't know who is behind itâ€¦but of course, they want to destabilize the country by destabilizing the army."
"The parliamentarian said Wednesday's attack would "give more power to the new government and the Lebanese army because nobody - from all the components of the political parties that are now in the new government - nobody wants chaos in Lebanon.
"The parties have tried chaos and civil war, and during the civil war, nobody could achieve anything. They understood it was impossible to achieve anything by force in Lebanon. [Problems] can be resolved by dialogue and not by arms and by killing innocent people."
Wednesday's bombing attack, he added, should push foreign countries, such as the United States, France and Germany, to provide more sophisticated arms to the Lebanese army so it can defend itself and the country more effectively.
"This equipment has to be shipped very, very soon, to give the army the arms it deserves to stabilize the country," the parliamentarian said.
Information Minister Tarek Mitri described the incident as a "big terrorist explosion" but would not speculate on who was behind it.
"The hands of the criminals have hit in Tripoli against innocent soldiers and civilians," he told reporters in Beirut. "Once again, they want our country to be an arena for settling scores and battling for influence."
Shattered glass could be seen in the Banks Street in Tripoli's center. Witnesses said fire engines and ambulances had rushed to the scene, while soldiers and policemen cordoned off the area to keep onlookers away and to investigate.
The small public bus, which had been bringing passengers from the remote northernmost Akkar region, home to many military members, was riddled with shrapnel from the blast.
Soldiers used sniffer dogs to search nearby parked car, as forensic experts in white uniforms, face masks and gloves sifted through the wreckage of the bus picking up evidence.
Experts determined the bomb was locally made and packed in a bag with bolts and nuts to maximize impact. It contained 1.5 kilograms of high-explosive TNT and was triggered by remote control, security officials said.
Electrician Hatem Hussein, 24, said he ran to the scene after hearing the loud explosion. "The wounded were lying on the ground, men in military uniforms," he said.
Another witness, Khaled Bizri, 38, said he didn't have the "courage to look at the dead," who included a popular street bread vendor, Abu Ayman.
"Everybody knew him. This was his place for 30 years."
Tripoli, 90 kilometers on the Mediterranean coast north of Beirut, is Lebanon's second-largest city with a mostly Sunni population, dominated by groups loyal to the Western-backed parliamentary majority.
Despite a relative calm elsewhere, it has in the past weeks witnessed sectarian clashes between Sunni fighters and followers of the Alawite sect, an offshoot Shi'ite sect, that killed and wounded dozens of people.
Tripoli is also close to the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, which experienced deadly clashes last year between Lebanese troops and members of the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam group. Hundreds died before the terrorists were defeated and flushed out of the city.
Fatah Islam group has claimed responsibility for a bomb blast that killed a soldier in Abdeh near Tripoli on May 31.
Last Friday, about 2,000 supporters of Islamist groups protested in Tripoli demanding the release of prisoners suspected of plotting or carrying out militant attacks in Lebanon.
Former Prime Minister Omar Karami - a prominent politician from Tripoli - said it is too early to speculate on the motive behind Wednesday's explosion, but added that the high casualties among soldiers could mean the military was targeted and could be related to the Nahr el-Bared violence.
Lebanon has seen a series of explosions in the last three-and-a-half years, including the 2005 truck bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, an explosion that sparked the political and security upheaval in the country.
However, there have been no serious explosions against politicians or public places since February.
The latest violence comes at an especially sensitive time for Lebanon.
On Tuesday, after a five-day debate and weeks of negotiations that preceded it, the parliament approved a national unity government that gives Hizbullah a more powerful say in the running of the country, including veto power over major decisions.
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