A suicide bomber blew himself up Monday afternoon in a van headed toward a Shiite-populated area of Beirut, killing himself and wounding the driver and one other passenger. The attack is the latest in a surge of suicide bombings that have stretched the capabilities of Lebanon’s security agencies and the powerful Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which seem unable to stem the flow of attacks.
The attack is the second suicide bombing since Saturday and the fifth this year to target Shiite areas of Lebanon in apparent retaliation by Al Qaeda groups against the Iran-backed Hezbollah, which has dispatched thousands of troops into Syria to defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The white Hyundai passenger van was passing through the town of Shweifat just outside Beirut during the late afternoon rush hour when it stopped to pick up the suicide bomber. Once on board, the bomber detonated his explosive belt, estimated at between 6.6 and 11 pounds, obliterating the van.
It was unclear whether the bomber had another target in mind. A Hezbollah-run school reportedly was located nearby. One report quoted a policeman as saying that Hassan Msheik, the driver of the van, questioned the bomber's swollen stomach moments before the bomb exploded. Lebanese television channels showed pictures of the destroyed van scattered across a fire-scorched road.
Lebanese news outlets said that Mr. Msheik routinely transported people in his van between Shweifat and southern Beirut. He was said to be seriously wounded while the other passenger, a woman, had minor injuries. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
On Saturday night, a suicide bomber exploded his vehicle at a petrol station in Hermel, a Shiite town in the northern Bekaa Valley, killing four people and wounding 23. The bombing was claimed by the Jabhat al-Nusra, an extremist Syrian rebel faction affiliated with Al Qaeda. The group said that the bombing was revenge for Hezbollah’s continuing “massacres” of Syrians.
Jabhat al-Nusra also claimed responsibility for an earlier suicide bomb attack in southern Beirut on Jan. 16 and in Hermel on Jan. 21, as well as two barrages of rockets launched from inside Syria to Shiite areas of the northern Bekaa. (Editor's note: This sentence has been edited to correctly reflect the date of the bombing claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra.)
Lebanese security agencies and powerful Hezbollah have struggled to staunch the surge of bomb attacks in Shiite areas, which have accelerated since mid-November, when two suicide bombers targeted the Iranian embassy in Beirut and killed 23 people.
The Shiite community in general still supports Hezbollah and accepts the party’s narrative that it has no choice but to fight in Syria against radical Sunni militants that it dubs “Takfiris.” However, the bomb attacks in southern Beirut, of which there have been five since July last year, are having a paralyzing effect. Businesses are being hit as the number of people willing to venture into the area to take advantage of the cheaper prices of food and goods falls. Traffic is minimal in a normally teeming neighborhood. Residents are looking to sell their properties or rent elsewhere in Beirut.
Hezbollah recently set up imposing barricades of concrete and steel with heavy metal crash barriers around the Rasoul al-Azzam hospital in southern Beirut, where many fighters wounded in Syria are being treated, making the facility a tempting target for Al Qaeda-linked extremists.
Especially unnerving to many Lebanese is that at least two of the eight people who have blown themselves up were Lebanese Sunnis, unprecedented acts for a community that is traditionally moderate in Lebanon. The identities of five of the bombers remain unknown. A third Lebanese, from the northern city of Tripoli, slipped across the border into Syria and blew himself up in Homs on Jan. 25.