Roadside bomb kills at least 18 soldiers in Lebanon


LEBANON:A ROADSIDE bomb tore through a bus packed with soldiers in Lebanon's troubled northern city of Tripoli yesterday, killing at least 18 people and wounding 46.

Exploding on a busy central street during the early-morning rush hour, the bomb appeared to target the military without sparing civilians, and the finger was immediately pointed at Islamic militants.

It was the worst attack on the army since last summer, when it fought a 16-week battle with al- Qaeda-inspired militant group Fatah al-Islam, losing 170 soldiers.

The gunmen, of Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab nationalities, were holed up in the Nahr El-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, just north of Tripoli. Fatah al-Islam leader Shaker al-Abssi and other fighters slipped away during the battle and remain on the loose.

"This terrorist explosion directly targets the army and peaceful coexistence in the country," the army said in a statement.

Body parts and broken glass lay in Banks Street, where the small public bus stood riddled with shrapnel and with its windows blown out.

Security experts said the blast was caused by a roadside bomb packed with nuts and bolts to maximise harm to passers-by.

Yesterday's bombing was a reminder that Lebanon's security remains precarious a day after a vote of confidence in Fouad al-Siniora's new government that marked another step in the settlement of a long-running political rift.

An alliance led by Shia group Hizbullah has a veto-wielding one-third of seats in the cabinet it shares with its western-backed former rivals.

Fighting between Sunni Muslim supporters of al-Siniora's bloc and Alawites allied with Syria killed 23 people over June and July in desperately poor areas near central Tripoli.

The bombing also came hours before President Michel Suleiman headed to Damascus for a historic summit expected to patch up tense relations between Lebanon and Syria.

Syria dominated its smaller neighbour politically and militarily for decades, and ties have been ice-cold since many in Lebanon and the west accused Damascus of assassinating former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005.

"I think this is part of the rise of the new Salafists in Lebanon and it was timed as President Suleiman visited Damascus because they are very against the Syrians," said Ahmad Moussalli, an expert on Islamic militancy at the American University of Beirut.

"Fatah al-Islam's main leaders disappeared from the battlefield. The military has been targeted because they see it as their main enemy," he added. - ( Financial Times service)