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Car bomb in Beirut hits a U.S. convoy

Times Staff Writer

A car bomb struck a convoy of U.S. Embassy vehicles Tuesday, killing three people and injuring at least 22 others, the latest in a string of attacks on high-profile targets in Lebanon.

No Americans were among the dead or injured, said the U.S. Embassy, though two of its local employees were hurt. No one had claimed responsibility for the attack.

The car bombing immediately resurrected dormant memories of past attacks on Americans here. Truck bombs destroyed a previous embassy and barracks housing Marines, killing more than 250 Americans in 1983. Shiite Muslim militants executed William Buckley, the CIA’s Beirut station chief, in 1985.

Tuesday’s bomb detonated at 4:30 p.m. in a poor, mostly industrial area near the city’s docks. The powerful blast sent the wounded screaming and shattered glass for hundreds of yards around. Ambulances screeched to and from the bomb site as twilight settled.

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“I heard a very powerful sound and ran into the street to look for my father,” said 17-year-old Rabih Boutros, among the residents in a tightly packed warren of three- and four-story buildings near the blast site. “I saw cars burned. There were people with blood on their faces. I saw people running and screaming.”

Television footage showed firefighters dousing flaming cars. Security forces flooded the area, struggling to seal off the crime scene and keep civilians away from steaming piles of twisted metal. Ambulances and Lebanese Red Cross volunteers ferried the wounded to hospitals. Near the scene of the bombing, Lebanese soldiers crouched behind cars and warned pedestrians off with their M-16 assault rifles.

Though officials said they were not sure whether the bombing was directed at Americans, Lebanese say that U.S. officials often travel in high-profile convoys of Chevrolet Suburbans and frequently use the road through the industrial area to bypass traffic on the highway above.

“I see them all the time passing here,” said Mohammed Darwiche, a blacksmith whose shop was thrown into disarray by the bombing. “American Embassy convoys are distinctive. They have tinted windows, and they have bodyguards pointing weapons.”

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Security officials scoured the scene for clues, examining other parked cars and questioning passersby. A high-ranking Lebanese security official said an explosive charge had been placed inside a car.

Two of the dead were Lebanese civilians in a passing vehicle and one was a Syrian pedestrian, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Syrian was probably one of the many Arab and South Asian guest workers living in the neighborhood.

According to a U.S. news release, two embassy security employees, both Lebanese, suffered injuries, one minor. “All American staff assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut are safe and accounted for,” the announcement said.

The attack was the latest in a mysterious string of bombings, many targeting prominent figures in the country, since the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Last month a bomb killed Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj, a high-ranking Lebanese army official.

Tuesday’s bombing came at a particularly perilous time for Lebanon, which has been paralyzed by a power struggle between the pro-U.S. government and the opposition, which is led by Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite Muslim militant group. The political stalemate has left Lebanon without a president for nearly two months. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora convened an emergency Cabinet meeting in response to the bombing.

“The government is determined to protect all the diplomatic delegations and guarantee security on its soil,” Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said in a televised appearance afterward. “We are going through a difficult political moment. We should put an end to this string of terrorist acts and fill the presidential void.”

Lebanon also has had to contend with Sunni Muslim militants inspired by Al Qaeda who fought the army in months-long clashes last summer. The group Fatah al Islam, led by the charismatic Shaker Abbsi, has vowed to continue attacks against the U.S.-backed government.

daragahi@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Raed Rafei contributed to this report.


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