A car bomb explosion killed six UN peacekeepers patrolling a southern Lebanon road today in an attack that could have serious repercussions beyond Lebanon’s borders.
In the north, Lebanese troops engaged in another battle with Islamic militants in Tripoli that claimed 10 more lives.
The mounting violence across Lebanon reflected the fast growing instability that is certain to throw the country into further chaos.
The deadly attack against the peacekeepers marked the first time that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, has come under attack since it was reinforced last summer after the war between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli forces in Lebanon.
Hezbollah was quick to denounce the attack, calling it in a statement a “suspicious act that harms the people of the south and of Lebanon”.
Hezbollah has had good relations with UNIFIL since the troops were first deployed in Lebanon in 1978.
Though it was uncertain who was behind today’s explosion, there have been warnings that the UN peacekeepers could be hit by a terror attack, particularly from al Qaida and its sympathisers.
Al Qaida’s No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri denounced the reinforced UNIFIL last year in a video, and media reports earlier this month said interrogations by Lebanese authorities with captured militants revealed plots to attack the force.
UNIFIL said in a statement that the six peacekeepers were killed and two others seriously wounded in an “apparent car bomb attack” while they were on patrol.
Lebanese officials said it appeared the explosion was triggered by remote control. No body parts were found in the car, meaning the bomb was detonated from a distance and did not involve a suicide attacker.
In Madrid, Spanish Defence Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said among the dead were three Colombian and two Spanish peacekeepers.
He called it a “premeditated attack” and said the “most likely cause” was either a car bomb or device activated by remote control.
It was not immediately known what nationality the sixth fatally wounded peacekeeper was.
The blast caused fires and threw the troops’ armoured personnel carrier to the side of a main road between the towns of Marjayoun and Khiam, a few miles north of the Israeli town of Metulla.
TV footage showed troops rushing to rescue their comrades.
Investigators worked under floodlights tonight at the scene to determine what happened.
Spain has 1,100 peacekeepers in Lebanon that are part of the 13,000-member UN force from 30 countries. UNIFIL, along with 15,000 Lebanese troops, patrol a zone along the Lebanese-Israeli border.
UNIFIL’s presence is instrumental in giving international teeth to the UN ceasefire resolution that halted last summer’s 34-day war. The reinforced UNIFIL force had received assurance regarding the safety of its troops and such attacks like today’s could weaken the resolve of contributing countries. It also could have serious repercussions for peace along the border.
Western-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora denounced the “suspicious terrorist attack,” saying “it targets Lebanon’s security and stability”.
Israel expressed “deep sorrow” at the deaths and offered assistance “in any way required,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
Syria also denounced the attack, the official news agency reported. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told his Spanish counterpart in a telephone call that the attack was “a criminal act that aims at shaking security and stability in southern Lebanon”.
At a news conference in Paris, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also condemned the attack.
The warnings that UNIFIL could be hit with a terror attack became more serious after the al Qaida-inspired Islamic militant group Fatah Islam began fighting Lebanese troops in a northern Lebanon Palestinian refugee camp five weeks ago. The militants have threatened to expand their battle to other parts of Lebanon.
But the attack also comes as the UN has become increasingly involved in highly divisive issues in Lebanon, including its relations with neighbouring Syria.
Last month, the UN Security Council imposed an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri despite rejection from the country’s Hezbollah-led opposition, which supports Damascus’ involvement in Lebanon.
Over the past three years, the UN has issued resolutions calling on Syria to stop interfering in Lebanese affairs and had considered a mission to monitor the border with Syria.
As part of security precautions, UN staff in Beirut in recent days erected a 13ft blast wall around the building housing UN offices.