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Bus explosions put Lebanon on edge

February 14, 2007|Raed Rafei and Megan K. Stack | Special to The Times

AIN ALAK, LEBANON — Bombs exploded on two commuter buses Tuesday as the vehicles rumbled through a rainy morning rush hour in this tiny Christian village, the blasts echoing like thunder and killing three people in the latest violence to rip through a rapidly destabilizing Lebanon.

The attacks rattled the country as people braced for today's commemoration of the two-year anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's slaying. Many people think Syria was behind the car bomb that killed Hariri, and they are pressing for an international tribunal to try those responsible.

At a time when Lebanon stands politically paralyzed and bitterly divided over who should run the government, some fear today's observance could spark more clashes.

The buses were packed with students, blue-collar workers, Sri Lankan maids and women making their way to Christian theology lessons. The dead were an Egyptian man, a 40-year-old woman and an 18-year-old man, the Interior Ministry said. At least 18 people were wounded, some badly maimed.

"I hate all the politicians. I wish they were all in that bus," said Antoine Nader, 30, a pharmacist who dashed from his shop after the first explosion to find a bloody scene. "It's a pity that those who paid the price this time were mostly poor."

By Tuesday night, supporters of the besieged U.S.-backed government had accused Syria of planning the bombings.

This pine-shaded mountain village lies outside Bikfaya, the ancestral homeland and political stronghold of the powerful Gemayel family, a prominent and controversial Christian dynasty.

Last week, former President Amin Gemayel visited President Bush at the White House, prompting rumors that he may have ambitions to seek office again. His son, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, was gunned down in November.

The bus bombings tapped into a traumatized national psyche, dredging up memories of the 15-year civil war, which began in earnest in 1975 with the slaying of 27 Palestinian civilians on a bus. It was the Gemayel family's Phalangist militia that carried out the massacre.

"I am raging with anger on the inside," said Elie Mbarak, 40, a businessman who paced at a hospital as surgeons operated on his sister. She was taking the bus from their hometown to go shopping. The bones in her chest were broken and her hair burned off.

"I don't want my children to live through this. Lebanon is not for people like us anymore," said Mbarak, who wore a cross around his neck.

"They want us to emigrate, but we will stay here," said Rosette Gemayel, 44, a relative of the wounded woman. "If a civil war breaks out, I will fight. I will fight against all these traitors."

Memories of the civil war and fear that fighting will erupt again among Lebanon's religious sects have been stirred by a political crisis that has sharpened sectarian tensions. The Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and its allies have launched a campaign against the U.S.-backed government. The opposition dismisses Lebanon's leaders as illegitimate puppets of the United States and has taken to the streets to demand a greater share of power.

At the same time, an excruciating killing campaign has dragged on. Lebanese are not sure who is behind the attacks. Many blame Syria, which stationed troops and exercised a degree of control in Lebanon until forced by the international community to withdraw after Hariri's death. The Syrian government has denied any involvement.

Against this backdrop, the attacks Tuesday seemed to indicate an escalation. Previously, there had been two types of bombings: assassinations of prominent politicians and journalists critical of Syria, and mostly symbolic strikes in unoccupied, usually Christian, areas.

Saad Hariri, head of the Sunni Muslim community and son of the slain former prime minister, urged people to turn out for his father's commemoration despite the attacks. He said that many people would be taking buses to the downtown Beirut demonstration, and that the blasts were meant to terrorize would-be participants into staying home.

"The message is clear," Hariri told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. "They want to scare people."

On the mountain road where the buses were bombed, Hariri's allies seemed more determined than ever to honor their dead.

"It will not scare us. I am sure Syria is behind it," said Charbel Gabriel, 50, who sells cars near the bombing site. "I am still determined to participate in the commemoration."

megan.stack@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Rafei reported from Ain Alak and Times staff writer Stack from Beirut.

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