BEIRUT (AFP) – The US embassy in Lebanon restricted the movement of its staff on Wednesday a day after a car bomb targeting one of its vehicles killed three people and further rattled the troubled country.
The bombing was the first such attack against American interests in Lebanon since the mid-1980s and came during a visit to the region by US President George W. Bush.
Bush, who ended his Middle East tour with a brief stop in Egypt on Wednesday, said Syria and Iran must stop “interfering” in Lebanese affairs and urged the country to hold a vote to choose a new president.
“It’s important to encourage the holding of immediate and unconditional presidential elections according to the Lebanese constitution and to make it clear to Syria, Iran and their allies they must end their interference and efforts to undermine” the process, Bush said.
His comments came as Arab League chief Amr Mussa returned to Beirut to try and nudge feuding political leaders to agree on an Arab initiative to end a long-running crisis that has left Lebanon without a president for nearly two months.
Several newspapers said the car bomb was a message to Bush and was aimed at undermining efforts to solve the presidential crisis.
Tuesday’s blast left three young men dead and wounded 26 people, including the Lebanese driver of the embassy car and an American passer-by on a brief visit to the country.
“It appears the attack involved a stolen Honda Civic car that was packed with 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of TNT and was parked on the side of the road,” a senior security official told AFP.
Security was tight around the capital with army checkpoints in many areas as Lebanese and US investigators gathered evidence at the blast site on a seafront road in Dawra, a Christian suburb on the northern edge of Beirut.
Though no definitive conclusions have been drawn about the bombing, “preliminary evidence would indicate that it was targeted,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, referring to the embassy car.
He added that the US embassy has now taken “the appropriate security precautions” while Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and other security personnel were sent from Washington to join the investigation.
The embassy warned Americans to avoid popular gathering spots and to “maintain a high level of vigilance, especially when planning travel.” It added that it was restricting the movement of its staff.
Two farewell receptions this week for US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman were also cancelled.
Tuesday’s attack was the first anti-American bombing in Lebanon since the 1980s, when US military and diplomatic missions were hit and Islamic fundamentalists took several Americans hostage during the civil war.
Newspapers and politicians said it was clear that the bombing, the latest in a string of political attacks in Lebanon in recent years, was a bid to torpedo Arab League efforts to end Lebanon’s political stalemate.
Lebanon has been without a president since pro-Syrian head of state Emile Lahoud stepped down on November 23 with no elected successor because of a standoff between the Western-backed majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition.
The three-point Arab plan now being touted calls for the election of army chief General Michel Sleiman as president, a national unity government in which no one party has veto power and the adoption of a new electoral law.
Parliament is due to meet on January 21 for a presidential vote but 12 previous sessions have been cancelled and it is widely believed that the upcoming session will meet the same fate.