BEIRUT — Lebanon was rocked by violence today with dozens killed in fighting in the country’s north and a car bomb in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Beirut that killed one person and wounded up to a dozen.
The day started with clashes in the northern city of Tripoli between the Lebanese Army and the Palestinian militant group, Fatah al-Islam, which the Lebanese government says is backed by Syria and shares an ideology with al Qaida. At least 22 soldiers and 17 militants were killed in fighting that lasted through much of the day.
But by the time calm had been imposed up north, a car bomb shattered windows and collapsed a building in the east Beirut neighborhood of Acrafiyeh. Reports say a woman was killed and about a dozen wounded.
The bomb was placed in a car lot next to the popular ABC Achrafiyeh mall, and the timing of the blast — at 11:40 p.m. — suggested that its intent was to cause panic and fear among the crowd exiting the movie theaters at the mall.
“It was just to scare people,” said a man in the car lot who declined to be identified. “If they really wanted to cause damage, they would have put it in the parking garage.”
As the AP reports:
The bomb left a crater about 4 feet deep and 9 feet wide, and police said the explosives were estimated to weigh 22 pounds. The blast — heard across the city — gutted cars, set vehicles ablaze and shattered store and apartment windows.
Hamid and Claudine Saliba, both 39, live across the street from the parking lot where the car exploded.
“In Lebanon, you expect anything,” said Claudine, and after today’s violence up north, she and her husband were on guard. “But not in Achrafiyeh!”
They spoke from Hamid’s mother’s home, which is two doors down from their own, and the devastation in the house was near total. Graceful Ottoman windows jambs were ripped from the walls and heavy doors torn from their hinges. Luckily for Hamid, his mother had left the house on vacation two days previously, so there were no injuries.
Initially welcomed as protectors during Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war, Syrian maintained an iron control over Lebanon after the war ended, effectively occupying it from 1990-2005, when it withdrew its troops. The withdrawal was forced upon Damascus following massive popular protests, which the Lebanese call the “independence uprising,” in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many in Lebanon blame Syria for that killing and the waves of violence that have followed.
Lebanon has been on a knife’s edge since December of last year when Hezbollah and its allies, who support Syria, pulled out of the government in protest over legislation forming an international tribunal that would handle the Hariri case. Syria and its supporters vehemently oppose the tribunal, forcing the Lebanese government to petition the United Nations to impose the tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, meaning it does not require Lebanese parliamentary approval. The tribunal is widely expected to indict high-level members of the Syrian regime, including the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Tonight’s bombing — which may or may not be tied to the fighting in the north — could be seen as a message that Syria’s agents in Lebanon are prepared to unleash more violence if the tribunal is imposed on Lebanon.