BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – A bomb blast set off huge fires in a mainly Christian suburb of Beirut on Saturday, injuring five people in the third such attack in eight days. Opposition leaders blamed Syria, saying Damascus hoped to sow fear as it withdraws troops from Lebanon.

The latest attack, targeting an industrial area in Beirut’s northeastern Bouchrieh area, raised tensions another notch in Lebanon, which has been gripped by political turmoil over Syria’s presence since the Feb. 14 assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri.

A 55 pound bomb was placed between a car and a furniture factory, said Lebanon’s police chief, Maj. Gen. Sarkis Tadros, citing an explosives expert. The blast destroyed nearby cars, shattered windows and left a crater that was 3 feet deep and 10 feet wide.

A Lebanese woman and two Indian workers were injured, as were two civil defense workers working on extinguishing the fire that engulfed at least six buildings, security officials said.

“They must love us – we got it twice in a week,” Bouchrieh mayor Antoine Gebara told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. He was referring to last Saturday’s explosion in the nearby predominantly Christian neighborhood of Jdeideh that injured nine people. Five days later, another bomb blast killed three people near the port city of Jounieh, Lebanon’s Christian heartland.

Witnesses said the blast on the eve of the Easter holiday occurred three hours before Catholics were to head to a midnight Mass.

The motive behind the latest attacks wasn’t clear, but Lebanese opposition leaders have blamed Syrian security agents and pro-Damascus Lebanese authorities for trying to show a need for Syria’s military presence in Lebanon in the midst of a Syrian troop withdrawal.

Each attack has targeted Christian, anti-Syrian strongholds, raising fears of the return of the sectarian violence that plagued Lebanon during the 1975-90 civil war.

“They (Syrians) think they can destroy Lebanese national unity this way. But the Lebanese will remain steadfast till infinity,” exiled Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun told Al-Arabiya TV.

Aoun said the situation calls for “changing the security organizations related to Syria. This can’t be delayed.”

The death of Hariri, who opposed Syria’s presence, sparked massive demonstrations in Lebanon that disrupted the government and helped force Damascus to pull back its 14,000 troops to eastern Lebanon under international pressure. Many Lebanese accuse the governments in Beirut and Damascus of being behind the slaying, a claim both vehemently deny.

About 1,000 of the 10,000 Syrian soldiers remaining in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley had started heading home in recent days, a Lebanese military official said Saturday. The redeployments follow the return to Syria of 4,000 soldiers in the first phase of the troop withdrawal that was completed March 17.

Lebanon’s pro-Syrian Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad warned that the Lebanese army may not be able to handle security if Syrian forces leave the eastern Bekaa Valley, a strategically important region for Syria’s own security, particularly in facing rival Israel.

The Bekaa, which covers 45 percent of Lebanese territory, “needs a lot of military forces,” Murad told reporters Friday, hinting that Syrian troops may still be needed in Lebanon.

Murad, who hails from the Bekaa, said the U.S. ambassador asked Lebanon’s army commander recently about Lebanese army readiness to replace Syrian forces in eastern Lebanon. Murad said the commander replied that “the conditions of the military establishment do not permit this new role in the Bekaa because numerically the army is not enough.”

Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt rejected Murad’s comments and renewed calls on Lebanese security chiefs to resign in the wake of a U.N. report this week that criticized Syria and its allied Lebanese government in connection with Hariri’s killing.

The report also recommended an international investigation into Hariri’s murder, but added such a probe would be difficult while Lebanon’s security chiefs are in place.

“It is not possible to carry out a just, clear and transparent investigation if the heads of (security) agencies remained in place,” Jumblatt said Saturday. Legislator Bahiya Hariri, the slain leader’s sister, also demanded the resignations.

Jumblatt said he expected more car bombs in the coming days and in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled to be held by May.

The pro-Syrian camp, however, accused opposition forces of seeking the instability to invite international intervention in Lebanon.

“I think what is going on is an attempt to internationalize the Lebanese situation to allow for sending troops to Lebanon,” said Karim Pakradouni, leader of the pro-government Christian Phalange party, adding he did not believe security agencies were to blame.

Syrian soldiers have been based in Lebanon since 1976, when they arrived ostensibly to provide a stabilizing force in the war-torn country. They remained after the end of hostilities, controlling all important political and security issues in Lebanon.


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