BREAKING: Explosion in south Lebanon hits UNIFIL

BEIRUT — An explosion has killed or injured at least four Spanish members of UNIFIL and wounded several others, although reports trickling in are contradictory and confusing. UNIFIL spokespeople are currently not answering phones — or the lines are busy. (The linked article says four Spanish soldiers were killed and four others wounded, but other stories give differing accounts.)
UPDATE: LBC and AP now report five Spanish troops killed, three wounded. Two bodies were charred beyond immediate recognition.
The explosion could have been an IED or car-bomb, as some reports indicate, or it could have been an unexploded mine, which litter the south of Lebanon. Obviously, if it’s a mine that’s a completely different story than if they were attacked. Indeed, Reuters says it was a landmine that killed four and wounded six.
UPDATE: Reuters is now reporting an IED detonated by remote control. And I spoke with a source familiar with the unexploded ordnance in the Khiam area and the United Nations’ mine clearing operations. The source said if it was a mine, it would have had to be an anti-tank mine, which aren’t as common in Lebanon as anti-personnel mines and that the Khiam area has been previously cleared of unexploded mines leftover from the various wars that have hit south Lebanon over the years.
Initial thoughts: The Spanish were probably in a “BMR-600″:http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/land/row/bmr-600.htm armored personnel carrier, “as shown here”:http://www.armyrecognition.com/europe/Espagne/vehicules_a_roues/BMR_600/BMR-600_101106_Spain_news_001.jpg. Perhaps some readers might be able to provide some insight on landmine vulnerability of the BMR-600?
Also, groups claiming to be or affiliated with al Qaeda have long made threats against UNIFIL, but none have been carried out so far (assuming the explosion is a landmine and not a planted IED or something.) UNIFIL is hampered by its lack of good intelligence on the ground and a clear authority to pursue counter-terrorism activities. As such, Brookings notes, UNIFIL is forced to rely on the Lebanese security regime, which is relatively weak and hamstrung by the political situation. The current contretemps up north with Fatah al-Islam, which has pledged to expand its campaign outside the camp of Nahr el-Bared, further complicate matters. Brookings believes the threat of a “catastrophic” attack against UNIFIL is real, but not imminent, but today’s blast, assuming it was an attack and not a tragic accident, could be a probing movement to gauge UNFIL’s response and an attempt to affect its military posture and morale. Also, don’t forget the homefronts for the contributor countries: Spain and France might go wobbly with their troop contribution should minor attacks picking off peacekeepers a few at a time become more common.
But why Spain? Spain, with 1,100 troops has the third largest contribution, behind France and Italy, and has been one of the more aggressive of the UNIFIL contingents, taking an active role in weapons confiscation and closely monitoring Hezbollah in the region. This has led to tensions with some Shi’ite villages, that are largely sympathetic to Hezbollah. Earlier this year, angry residents of a village just north of UNIFIL’s deployment mobbed a jeep full of Spanish soldiers because the villagers thought they were spying against Hezbollah. In December, according to the Christian Science Monitor, Hezbollah planted several bombs against one of the Spanish patrols, “which had discovered an abandoned Hizbullah position with stockpiled mortar shells and rockets.”

The area was formerly used by Hizbullah to launch attacks into the Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-occupied mountainside claimed by Lebanon. The trip-wire detonated bombs, all constructed from Israeli-made components, were planted by “experts with a lot of technical experience,” an internal UNIFIL report on the incident said.
“This situation suggests a change in the threat that UNIFIL may have to face,” the report said.

After the bombs were discovered, Hezbollah told UNIFIL it was a local commander who was acting on his own and that he would be reprimanded and the incident would not be repeated.
In February, however, the Israeli army dismantled five linked bombs on a border road, claiming they were planted by Hezbollah the weekend before. Hezbollah denied it, saying the bombs were from before the July war last year and UNIFIL said there was no way to tell when the bombs were planted.
But Hezbollah is not the only — or even most likely — party behind the bombing. In fact, my hunch is they are the _least_ likely to have done this. More likely are jihadis who are operating in solidarity with Fatah al-Islam up north (there were persistent stories circulating that UNIFIL’s naval contingent was taking part in the bombardment of Nahr el-Bared), genuine al Qaeda elements or wannabes who want to impress al Qaeda leadership in order to gain admission. There has been so far no claim of responsibility, and the list of possible bombers is a long one.
More as information becomes available.

Syria closes land crossings into Lebanon

BEIRUT — Syria has announced that it is closing the two remaining land crossings into Lebanon as of midnight tonight, including the main Masnaa border crossing. According to LBC, Lebanese customs officials asked their Syrian counterparts at the border why, only to be told “it’s a political decision.” The crossing presumably will be closed indefinitely.

Masnaa is the busiest land crossing, sitting as it does on the road from Beirut to Damascus. It is one of Lebanon’s main trade routes shipping its agricultural products to the rest of the Middle East and tonight’s closures, following Syria’s closure earlier this month of the northern border crossings because of the violence at “Nahr el-Bared”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/2007/06/the_neverending_crisis.php, leaves Lebanon with no land access to the outside world.

Syria has often used the border crossings to apply political pressure on Lebanon since the Feb. 14, 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

It could be a bit of a Syrian snit-fit in response to a delegation from the Arab League that is in town at the request of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority. The anti-Syrian bloc is demanding Arab states intervene with Syria to stop its interference in Lebanese affairs and Damascus’ alleged weapons smuggling to various armed groups.

Syria is feeling the heat from the imposition of the International tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN charter earlier this month, and this will put the Lebanon pressure cooker under more pressure.

The never-ending crisis

BEIRUT — This is a never-ending story.
The siege of Nahr el-Bared by thousands of Lebanese army troops has entered its third week now, and it may be metastasizing. “Clashes broke out at the Ein el-Helweh camp south of Sidon”:http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/lebanonunrest;_ylt=AsuRIirk3._W3HQk8Liy4WDagGIB yesterday between the Lebanese army and Jund al-Sham overnight and two soldiers were killed. Two militants were also killed.
The fighting erupted just hours after Abu Riyadh, who had previously belonged to Jund al-Sham, was killed in Nahr al-Bared.
“Jund al-Sham”:http://jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2369949 is yet another Salafist/Islamist group that has found a haven in the squalid and miserable Palestinian camps in Lebanon, thanks in no small part because the Lebanese have let the Palestinians stew rather than integrate them into the greater society. This policy has created fetid breeding grounds for extremist ideologies in tune with al Qaeda’s, ideologies which are in marked contrast to the more laid back and sophisticated Mediterranean outlook of most of Lebanon.
However, there is likely little coordination between the group responsible for yesterday’s and this morning’s clashes in the south and Fatah al-Islam up north in Nahr el-Bared. More likely, members of Jund al-Sham decided it was time to help their brothers in Islam and raised a ruckus. Shaker al-Absssi, the leader of Fatah al-Islam up north, even told a colleague of mine when she spoke with him this morning that there were no operational links between Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham.
Another theory, popular in the government circles, is that yesterday’s outburst in the south was yet another Syrian plot to sow chaos in Lebanon, although I have my doubts about that. While Syria is active here and Fatah al-Islam is without a doubt (in my mind) a Syrian asset, Jund al-Sham looks to be more independent. Not everything in Lebanon is made in Syria.
I don’t think the incident in Ein el-Helweh will grow larger than it has. Already, other Palestinian groups have stepped in and, in effect, told the Jund al-Sham boys to sit down and shut up. The fighters reportedly turned over some of their positions to other Islamist groups in the camp.
Sorry for the lack of postings over the last three days. Yahoo!’s servers are crap, and I’m often having trouble getting into them. I hope to have this resolved soon. I’m also going to be making a major announcement regarding syndication in the coming days, hopefully.
Also, donations are working again, and covering this place ain’t cheap. Fixers, rented cars, hotel rooms, etc. all cost money and freelancing for newspapers only covers part of it. If you’d like me to keep blogging the developments in Lebanon’s latest crisis, please consider dropping some coin in the donate link below and to the right. Thanks.

Lebanese Army on the Move

BEIRUT — The Lebanese army is on the move toward Nahr el-Bared. For the last three hours, the army has been pounding Fatah al-Islam positions with artillery, tanks and mortars. Some believe this is a softening up of position before a full-scale assault on the camp, which would break a 37-year-old precedent keeping Lebanese troops out of the Palestinian camps.
Or it might be another one of the exchanges of fire that have peppered the almost two week stand-off. Although this one looks pretty big.

Coverage of the Conflict

BEIRUT — Well, the situation up north has settled into a standoff, despite a bout of gunfire on Monday. The various Palestinian factions are trying to negotiate an end to this crisis, and the Lebanese government has given them time to get the job done. But while several politicians, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, have said the military option is off the table, we may very well see more violence before this is over. Lebanon simply can’t allow these guys to walk away, as I’ve mentioned before.
The group continues to refuse to hand over any of its fighters. “This is impossible,” said Fatah al-Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha via telephone from inside Nahr el-Bared.
I’ll be heading back up, probably Tuesday, to monitor the situation. In the meantime, here are some of the stories I filed over the last week:
* Lebanon, Syria Point Fingers in Recent Violence (Washington Times)
* Lebanese army assault cheered, but raises fears (San Francisco Chronicle)
* Bodies piling up in assault on camp (San Francisco Chronicle)
Another one on the foreign fighters in Fatah al-Islam is due out tomorrow morning.
*UPDATE 5/30/07 2:13:53 AM:* And here it is! Sorry for the delay. Been busy here taking care of daily life that got put on hold while the North caught fire. Right now, things are more or less quiet, with the occasional exchange of fire. We’ll see how long it holds.

Going in?

BEIRUT — In my previous post, I mentioned that Maj. Gen Ashraf Rifi, the head of the Internal Security Forces told me, he “thinks the army will have to go in” to Nahr el-Bared to uproot the militants of Fatah al-Islam.
“They are very dangerous,” he told me in his plush office. “We have no choice, we have to combat them.”
Perhaps I underplayed his comments, because if he’s right, “going in” would be a huge development. The Palestinians have run their own security in the 12 camps under a 1969 agreement brokered by the Arab League. Now, that agreement was allegedly revoked in 1987 by the Lebanese Parliament, but there’s still at least a tacit agreement that the Palestinians mind their own store.
That’s not really a viable security option anymore, as we can see just north of Tripoli.
Now, what was Rifi trying to say? Was he merely repeating the phrase of my question — “Will the army have to go in?” — because his english isn’t so good, as he protested a couple of times? (He spoke well enough to conduct an interview, mind you.) Was he trying to emphasize the point that there are elements in the government that are rarin’ to go get those Fatah al-Islam guys while others, perhaps Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, are willing to take a slower approach?
Or was he trying, in his own locution, to emphasize the importance for Lebanon of winning this battle? Because this is make or break time for Lebanon as a sovereign state.
If the army fails at this task of defeating Fatah al-Islam — and I’m not talking about some mealy-mouthed “arrangement” where a few of the militants are hauled in — it will undermine the legitimacy of the army as a state institution. And that will very much play right into Hezbollah’s hands.
See, Hezbollah has often said it is needed as an armed resistance because the army is too weak to stand up to Israel. (True.) But the Shi’ite group won’t put itself under the command of the army because to do so would mean that any attack it launched on Israel such as, say, capturing and killing Israeli troops, would mean _Lebanon_ was the aggressor and as such would bring down the wrath of the Israeli military on _Lebanon._
Of course, this is exactly what happened last summer, but let’s not quibble. In Lebanese politics, there are apparently no limits on hypocrisy.
If the army fails and is seen as weak or illegitimate, Hezbollah has a strong argument for saying it must keep its arms for the defense of Lebanon. Now, one of the definitions of sovereignty is the “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopoly_on_the_legitimate_use_of_physical_force, or violence. Since Lebanon’s government and weak army would be unable to claim that following a loss at the hands of Fatah al-Islam, there would be no real sovereignty here. Hezbollah 1, Lebanon 0.
One can argue whether a sovereign Lebanon is a good or bad thing in the grand scheme of things, an argument I can’t address on this humble blog, although I favor the former. But it’s vitally important to the Lebanese government.
It’s so important that some elements of the government, including Rifi’s former boss, cabinet member Ahmad Fatfat, “are calling for storming the gates of Nahr el-Bared.”:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070526.LEBANON26/TPStory/International
There is some buzz that this will be resolved in 48 hours. That may be true, or it might not be. A lot can happen in this small country in that time.
By the way, the donations are working again, and covering this place ain’t cheap. Fixers, rented cars, hotel rooms, etc. all cost money and freelancing for newspapers only covers part of it. If you’d like me to keep blogging the developments in Lebanon’s latest crisis, please consider dropping some coin in the donate link below and to the right. Thanks.