Blast sharpens memories of Lebanon's civil war

A second bomb in one week exploded Wednesday in a mainly Christian suburb.

Concerns about a return to the violence that plagued Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 have grown sharper after a bomb explosion Wednesday killing three people in a Christian town north of Beirut, the second unclaimed bomb attack in five days.

The 45-pound bomb exploded in the Alta Vista commercial center in the upscale shopping district of Kaslik, 12 miles north of Beirut, killing two Indians and a Sri Lankan and causing extensive damage.

The blast comes five days after a car bomb exploded in Jdeideh, the Christian suburb of Beirut, wounding 11 people.

The assassination last month of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, has plunged the country into its greatest political upheaval since the end of the civil war 15 years ago. With Syria blamed for the murder, mass street protests and international pressure have forced Damascus to begin the process of withdrawing its military presence from Lebanon. So far, about 6,000 troops have been removed from Beirut.

Many Lebanese say that the two bomb blasts this week are the work of Syria and its allies in Lebanon in a transparent bid to sow sectarian unrest in the country and demonstrate to the international community that Syria's presence in Lebanon is necessary to maintain peace.

"It is a political message to the [anti- Syrian] independence uprising," said Fares Boueiz, an opposition legislator and former minister. "Whoever was behind the blast had the intention to tell the Lebanese that Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon had a price."

Another opposition legislator, Nematallah Abi Nasr, urged residents not to respond to the bombings. "Each citizen should be his own guard," he said.

It is a piece of advice that many Lebanese are taking to heart. For Nadia Rida, a housewife in her 30s, the bombings have reawakened grim memories of her teenage years in the 1980s when warring militias often set off car bombs in different areas of Beirut.

"I have children and I am petrified of going out of the house because of the possibility of a car bomb exploding," she says.

Following Saturday's bomb attack in Jdeideh, bomb scares swept Beirut. A reported bomb blast in the Christian suburb of Antelias was nothing more than a car with a suspicious bag in the back. One bomb scare turned out to be a hoax when police found several candle sticks tied together to resemble dynamite and connected to a timer.

Last week, a United Nations official charged with overseeing the Syrian troop withdrawal warned of the possibility of further assassinations of high profile opposition figures, a statement that did little to reassure an already nervous Lebanese public.

Analysts doubt the violence will ignite a fresh civil war because many of the factors that catalyzed the conflict in 1975 are no longer relevant. Furthermore, there is little appetite for renewed fighting, particularly from a younger generation of Lebanese who were brought up and educated in the West.

Sylvia Haddad still shudders at the memory of the car bombings in Beirut in the mid-1980s. "We had a horrible time especially when a bomb exploded when the children were in school. All the parents would rush panic-stricken to take their children away," she says. "We are scared and it's horrible to think that we might go back to those days."

Traffic has eased up on Beirut's usually clogged streets as fewer people venture outside their homes. Business has taken a tumble among the street side cafes, restaurants and pubs in the downtown district of Beirut, the scene of recent demonstrations.

Beirut's hotel district is still recovering from the massive explosion on Feb. 14 that killed Hariri and at least 18 others. Although most hotels in the vicinity suffered blast damage, none were as badly struck as the St. Georges, Beirut's most famous hotel.

"All the work we have done in the past 10 years has gone," says Fadi Khoury, owner of the St. Georges. The bomb exploded on the street beside the hotel and opposite his office. Four staff members were killed when the blast destroyed the walls of the office building. Mr. Khoury was buried under a pile of rubble and his assistant was blown across the road onto the roof of a car.

"It seems the country is returning to the old days of war," Mr. Khoury says.

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