Suicide bombers kill 5 in eastern Lebanon, near Syria border

AP News
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Posted: Jun 27, 2016 11:27 AM
Suicide bombers kill 5 in eastern Lebanon, near Syria border

BEIRUT (AP) — Suicide bombers killed five people and wounded at least 15 in a northwestern Lebanese village near the Syrian border on Monday, witnesses and paramedics said.

The attack took place in the mainly Christian village of Qaa, a few hundred meters (yards) from the frontier. The state-run National News Agency said four suicide bombers took part in the attack. No group immediately claimed responsibility.

Violence from the Syrian civil war has spilled over the border in the past, inflaming Lebanon's own political divisions and raising concerns over the more than 1 million Syrian refugees there, who now make up a fifth of the tiny country's population. The nationalities of the attackers remained unknown.

An eyewitness said the four attackers raised suspicions when they passed through the village before dawn. When civilian village guards called out to them, they threw a hand grenade. The witness spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

The town's mayor, Bashir Matar, said residents began gathering after the first explosion, and that the other bombers targeted the crowd, one after the other.

"As we were treating some of the wounded, I saw the fourth suicide attacker coming toward me. I shouted at him," Matar told the Al-Mayadeen TV network. "We opened fire toward him and he blew up."

George Kitane, the head of paramedics at the Lebanese Red Cross, confirmed the death toll and said the 15 wounded were taken to nearby hospitals. He said several others were treated on the spot. One of the four explosions struck an ambulance for the village's archbishopric, killing its driver, residents said.

A Lebanese military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said four soldiers were among the wounded. Prime Minister Tammam Salam declared Tuesday a national day of mourning.

Qaa and the nearby Ras Baalbek are the only two villages with a Christian majority in the predominantly Shiite Hermel region, where the Shiite Hezbollah group holds sway. The group has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to bolster President Bashar Assad's forces against the predominantly Sunni rebels trying to topple him.

Sunni extremists have carried out several attacks in the border area since Syria's conflict began in March 2011, leading the Christians of Qaa to set up self-defense units for their village. Since mid-2014, the Lebanese army has stepped up operations and patrols in the area, leading to a drop in bombings and shelling.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV blamed Monday's attack on the Islamic State group, which has claimed previous attacks in Lebanon.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, visiting Qaa after the attack, said the village formed part of a "fence" for Lebanon. "When a terrorist enters, he can go anywhere," he said.

Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement party, sparked condemnation Sunday for calling on municipalities under his party's control to ban any gathering or camps of Syrian refugees. The FPM commands the largest Christian bloc in parliament.

On Monday, Bassil said he did not want to "tie any particular nationality or religion to terrorism." But he said "no one can deny the reality that displacement will be used as a cover for terrorism."

The area of Mashrea Qaa — a predominantly Sunni area near Qaa — is home to a large number of Syrian refugees.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Philip Issa in Beirut contributed to this report.