TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) – A bomb killed at least 18 people, including nine soldiers, in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Wednesday, security sources said.
The bomb, which also wounded at least 45 people, was the deadliest attack on the army since its battle with al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants in the north last year.
It had been placed in a bag at a bus stop where soldiers usually gather, the army said in a statement, describing the attack as a “terrorist bombing” — a phrase used in the past by the military when it suspects militant Islamist involvement.
The blast struck at 7.45 a.m. (0445 GMT) as people made their way to work. Red Cross workers ferried casualties to hospital. The ground was spattered with blood and covered in shards of glass.
“It seems that the bomb was detonated wirelessly by remote,” Lebanon’s police chief Ashraf Reefi said.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attack in Lebanon’s second largest city, which has been the scene of fighting between security forces and Islamist militants and sectarian violence linked to political tension in Lebanon.
“The army and security forces will not yield to attempts to terrorize them with attacks and crimes,” said President Michel Suleiman, who was army chief until elected president in May.
Suleiman led the army during 15 weeks of fighting last year with the al Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam group, which was based at a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli. The army lost 170 soldiers while putting down the insurrection.
“It could be a signal from the same jihadi groups that they are still around,” said Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut. “It’s a pretty clear signal to the army.”
The Tripoli attack was the latest jolt to stability in Lebanon, which has suffered a wave of bombings and political killings since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.
The list of assassinated figures includes Francois al-Hajj, a senior army officer blown up in December. The Tripoli attack was the deadliest internal bombing since Hariri’s assassination.
VISIT TO SYRIA
“The investigation has begun and there are many interpretations, political interpretations” Information Minister Tareq Mitri said, responding to media speculation that the attack was designed to undermine a visit to Syria by Suleiman.
He was due in Damascus on Wednesday for the first time since his election as president. Suleiman was scheduled to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a visit seen a sign of improved ties between the two countries.
Syria strongly condemned Wednesday’s attack, the Syrian state news agency reported.
Damascus had seen the previous U.S.-backed Lebanese cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora as hostile and supported an alliance of factions led by Hezbollah during 18 months of political conflict with the governing coalition.
The conflict was defused by a Qatari-mediated deal in May. Siniora, who is now prime minister of a new national unity government, said the bombers wanted “the continuation of tension in Lebanon.”
The Doha agreement led to the election of Suleiman and the formation of the new cabinet, which won a vote of confidence in parliament on Tuesday.
But the rival factions have yet to fully reconcile their differences and at least 22 people have been killed in Tripoli in recent months in sectarian fighting.