BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – FBI agents sifted through the debris Wednesday of the latest in a spate of bombings in Lebanon, American involvement certain to unnerve Syria as it comes under stepped-up U.S. pressure to stay out of its neighbor’s business.

Until now, Lebanon had shied away from seeking direct U.S. assistance, although federal agents investigated a bombing in June and a U.N. probe is under way in the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

But the difficulty the government has encountered in identifying those behind the explosions since Hariri’s murder in February has led authorities to turn to Washington for help. Not a single arrest has been made in connection with the blasts.

FBI agents picked through metal fragments and lifted fingerprints from the site where a bomb tore through a car Sunday near the port city of Jounieh north of Beirut. The vehicle belonged to May Chidiac, a prominent anchorwoman and talk show host on a television station that has taken a line against Syria. She was maimed in the attack.

Three agents examined the destroyed vehicle. Wearing gloves, one sifted through debris and collected fragments while another shot pictures. A third took notes. Journalists were kept behind a Lebanese police cordon; team members declined to respond to requests for comment.

A black box carried by a team member was marked “explosives unit” and bore the Washington address of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Both the Lebanese government and U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman took pains to explain that the American assistance was merely technical – to provide expertise in evidence-gathering. But it also carried a message to Damascus, the former overlord of Lebanon for nearly three decades.

Syria, which was forced to withdraw its army from Lebanon in April under intense U.S. pressure, has been accused by Washington of continuing to interfere in Lebanese affairs and been warned to stay out.

In Syria, the arrival of the FBI was seen as intervention in Lebanese affairs.

“For sure, they don’t like Lebanon that much. They are coming for other reasons, part of which is uncovering the bombings but most importantly to study the situation and to spy on Lebanon,” said Elias Murad, editor-in-chief of Syria’s state-run Al-Baath newspaper. “This is a direct intervention in Lebanese affairs that is an admission of the weakness of the Lebanese security services.”

Syrian officials are reportedly the target of the U.N. probe into Hariri’s assassination. The findings, expected in late October, could reach Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, giving rise to fears of increased violence in Lebanon. Damascus has denied any involvement.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has warned of more attacks and drew links between the Hariri probe and the series of bombings, which have largely targeted opponents of Syria and areas where anti-Syrian sentiment runs high.

Interior Minister Hassan Sabei underlined the government’s helplessness when he said this week that Lebanon faced a “phantom” intent on destabilizing it.

The issue of any American involvement is sensitive for the Lebanese government. It is opposed by the militant Hezbollah, which Washington brands as a terrorist group, and other pro-Syrian factions, some of whom are in the government.

The attempt to kill Chidiac, who lost an arm and a leg in the explosion, provoked wide indignation in Lebanon. The United States, the European Union and the United Nations joined Lebanese politicians in condemning the bombing, while students staged protests in Beirut.

U.N. investigators returned to Lebanon on Friday after four days of questioning officials in Syria, whose army and intelligence units were in control of Lebanon when a massive bombing targeted Hariri’s motorcade on a Beirut street, killing him and 20 others.


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