Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Three killed by bomb meant for US Embassy vehicle

Three killed by bomb meant for US Embassy vehicle
At last 21 wounded in attack that leaves intended victims virtually unscathed

By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: An explosion targeting a US Embassy vehicle ripped through the Karantina industrial zone near Beirut on Tuesday, leaving three people dead and at least 21 wounded. Two embassy security employees, both Lebanese citizens, were in the vehicle at the time of the attack, according to an embassy statement. One suffered minor wounds, while the other emerged unscathed. Two people in a Fiat were killed when their car, traveling just meters behind the embassy vehicle, bore the brunt of the explosion. The vehicles were traveling along the sea route, a road parallel to the main Dora/Karantina highway, which experienced heavy congestion in the hours following the blast. The Fiat was registered to one Joseph Khalil Khoury, a Sin al-Fil resident, according to a security source. The identities of the two victims inside the car could not be readily established as they were badly burned. A third man killed in the blast was identified as Ghassan Ali al-Hussein, a Syrian national who was riding a motorcycle.

The US State Department said Tuesday one "private US citizen" was also slightly wounded. The man was identified as a bystander who happened to be in the area at the time and was not affiliated with the US government or the embassy vehicle, said State Department spokesperson Sean MacCormak. The armored embassy vehicle bore no diplomatic plates, only one set of Lebanese license plates in the back. The vehicle was returning from Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport after dropping off an embassy staffer, according to media reports. The embassy vehicle was damaged on its right side and pushed off the road by the power of the blast. A senior security source told The Daily Star that the US Embassy vehicle was in the area on a scouting mission to ensure the road was safe. "The road was under surveillance all day. It was to be used by US Ambassador Jeffery Feltman, who was planning to attend a farewell party at the Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel held in his honor Friday evening," the source said. The party was cancelled as a result. Many of the wounded were working in nearby buildings and factories at the time of the blast. They were taken to both Mar Youssef Hospital in Karantina and Jeittawy Hospital in Achrafieh. Army forces imposed a security cordon around the area and blocked access to the blast site, causing heavy traffic. Heavily armed US Embassy security staff were als on hand.

The security source said the bomb had been placed behind two metal dumpsters, attached to the wall of a two-story building on the side of the road and to the left of the embassy vehicle as it passed. The device went off after the embassy car had passed the dumpsters, thus the vehicle immediately behind the embassy car sustained the full blast. State Prosecutor Saeed Mirza, who visited the blast site, took personal charge of the investigation since the bombing targets a diplomatic mission in the country. Also visiting the blast site Tuesday were the government commissioner at the Military Tribunal, Judge Jean Fahd, and Military Investigatiing Magistrate Rasheed Mezher. Two men were taken into custody by Lebanese Army soldiers at the blast site. It was not immediately clear if the two were suspects in the case or just being taken for questioning.

'Innocent martyrs fell today' - Aridi

BEIRUT: The Lebanese government strongly condemned the bombing that targeted a US Embassy vehicle on Tuesday, one day before Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa's expected return to Lebanon to continue his mediation in the country's domestic political crisis Information Minister Ghazi Aridi, addressing reporters following a scheduled ministerial meeting Tuesday evening, said all indications were that Moussa's visit Wednesday was still on. Aridi offered the government's deepest condolences to the families of the victims of the attack, wished the wounded a swift recovery and expressed commitment to protect all diplomatic missions in the country. The ministerial meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, was held to discuss the Arab initiative and Moussa's return to Beirut. "This bombing targets Lebanon at a politically critical and delicate juncture," Aridi said, adding that the government embraced the Arab initiative to fill the vacancy in the presidency and end the series of bombings that have plagued the country since 2005. "The attack, whether it targeted the US Embassy or any other, was on Lebanese soil and as a result it targets the security of the Lebanese," he said. "Innocent martyrs fell today who have nothing to do with all that is happening politically. They were not embassy staff, whose vehicle was targeted. Therefore these attacks target the security and stability of Lebanon."

Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, whose group is labeled a "terrorist" organization by the US, also spoke out against the blast. "We condemn and denounce any explosion that takes place on Lebanese territory," he said, "regardless of who is targeted, and especially if innocent people are killed." Parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri said the bomb targeted stability in Lebanon. He said the perpetrators do not wish to see the country return to normality. Hariri said he regretted that innocent Lebanese had paid a heavy price for continuous attacks targeting their country. He said he had called US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman to confirm that he was unharmed and expressed regret on the injury of two embassy staffers.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing in Karantina, the embassy released a single-sentence statement indicating that a farewell reception planned for the outgoing Feltman had been cancelled. This was followed by a more detailed statement that condemned the incident "in the strongest term." "The embassy is outraged that there are still those who work to undermine Lebanon's stability through murder and intimidation," the mission said. "The Lebanese people deserve to live in peace and security in an independent and united Lebanon." It added that "crimes" like Tuesday's bombing "will not weaken the international partnership working to support and strengthen Lebanon's independence and democracy." US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also weihged in. "I want to state the outrage of the United States against the terrorist attack that took place in Lebanon today," Rice said during a joint press conference in Riyadh with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. Rice said the United States would not be deterred by "intimidation" in its efforts to help democratic forces in Lebanon and the Lebanese people to "resist foreign interference in their affairs" State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said US Embassy security people were working with the Lebanese government and were going to look into the circumstances of the blast. France's UN ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, deplored what he described as the "cowardly" bomb attack, which killed three bystanders. "We really once again condemn this cowardly attack," Ripert told reporters after attending a Security Council meeting on the situation in Ivory Coast. "We have to express our deep concern once again [over] the fact that some people are trying very hard to add some more confusion to the situation in Lebanon whereas we are needing peace, dialogue serenity," Ripert said. He recalled comments by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner Monday that Lebanon's political crisis would have to be taken to the United Nations if the Arab League effort to end the impasse failed. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also condemned the blast. "The attack showed once more that the domestic crisis in Lebanon needs to be resolved as quickly as possible in order to put an end to the violence," he said in a statement. The foreign minister urged political forces in Lebanon and the region to work together to elect a new president and form a new government. Reports from Damascus said that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem would travel to Germany on Thursday to discuss the Lebanese crisis and other issues with Steinmeier. - With agencies

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