TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) - At least 15 people including nine soldiers were killed in Lebanon on Wednesday, according to security sources, in the deadliest attack on the army since a battle with al Qaeda-inspired militants last year.
An army statement described the attack in the northern city of Tripoli as a “terrorist bombing” — a phrase used in the past by the military when it suspects militant Islamist involvement.
It said the bomb had been placed in a bag at a bus stop where soldiers usually gather.
Another 45 people were wounded. Four were in a critical condition, medical sources said.
Red Cross workers ferried casualties to hospital. The ground was spattered with blood and covered in shards of glass.
“It seems that the bomb was detonated wirelessly by remote,” Lebanon’s police chief Ashraf Reefi said. Security sources had earlier put the death toll at 18.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attack in Lebanon’s second-largest city, which has been the scene of fighting between security forces and Islamist militants and sectarian violence linked to political tension in Lebanon.
“The army and security forces will not yield to attempts to terrorize them with attacks and crimes,” said President Michel Suleiman, who was army chief until elected president in May.
Suleiman led the army during 15 weeks of fighting last year with the al Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam group, which was based at a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli. The army lost 170 soldiers while putting down the insurrection.
“It could be a signal from the same jihadi groups that they are still around,” said Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut. “It’s a pretty clear signal to the army.”
In New York, the U.N. Security Council condemned “in the strongest terms” what it too called a terrorist attack, and called in a statement for the perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors to be brought to justice.
The Tripoli attack was the latest jolt to stability in Lebanon, which has suffered a wave of bombings and political killings since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
The list of assassinated figures includes Francois al-Hajj, a senior army officer blown up in December. The Tripoli attack was the deadliest internal bombing since Hariri’s assassination.
“The investigation has begun and there are many interpretations, political interpretations,” Information Minister Tareq Mitri said, responding to media speculation that the attack was designed to undermine a visit to Syria by Suleiman.
In Damascus on Wednesday, Suleiman and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to establish diplomatic relations between their countries at the ambassadorial level, a move the United States and other Western powers have pressed for.
Syria strongly condemned Wednesday’s attack, the Syrian state news agency reported.
Damascus had seen the previous U.S.-backed Lebanese Cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora as hostile and supported an alliance of factions led by Hezbollah during 18 months of political conflict with the governing coalition.
The conflict was defused by a Qatari-mediated deal in May. Siniora, who is now prime minister of a new national unity government, said the bombers wanted “the continuation of tension in Lebanon.”
The Doha agreement led to the election of Suleiman and the formation of the new Cabinet, which won a vote of confidence in parliament on Tuesday.
But the rival factions have yet to fully reconcile their differences and at least 22 people have been killed in Tripoli in recent months in sectarian fighting.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Laila Bassam and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; editing by Eric Beech