AIN ALAQ, Lebanon (Reuters) - Bombs exploded on two buses in a Christian area of Lebanon on Tuesday, killing at least three people and wounding 20 on the eve of the second anniversary of the killing of ex-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Government sources said most of the casualties were on public buses carrying people to work in Beirut from Ain Alaq village near Bikfaya, home town of former president Amin Gemayel whose son was assassinated by gunmen in November.
The blasts wrecked the buses and other vehicles on a mountain road about 24 km (15 miles) northeast of Beirut. Pools of blood lay near a minibus which had its roof torn off.
When the first bomb exploded, the driver of the second bus stopped and got out. His own bus then blew up, security sources said.
A police spokesman said the report of three deaths was preliminary and the toll could rise. It was not known why that area was targeted and no group claimed responsibility.
Tension has been running high in Lebanon since street clashes last month between supporters and opponents of the Western-backed government in which nine people were killed.
The U.S. embassy in Beirut said in a statement: “The attack can only be seen as an attempt to silence and intimidate those determined to realize their vision of a sovereign, independent and democratic Lebanon.”
Pro-government groups had planned a mass rally in Beirut’s Martyrs Square on Wednesday to mark Hariri’s killing, despite fears of friction with opposition supporters camped nearby since December 1 in a campaign to topple the anti-Syrian government.
Hariri’s son, Saad, the leader of the majority anti-Syrian coalition, said the memorial would go ahead as planned. The bombings showed the need for the U.N.-backed tribunal to try suspects in his father’s killing and other attacks, he said.
“This is new evidence that the international court is a Lebanese need ... to protect normal Lebanese,” he told LBC television.
The opposition, led by Hezbollah, is holding back from endorsing the tribunal, saying it wants to make sure that it cannot be used as a political tool. Various opposition leaders condemned Tuesday’s twin attack, calling for a swift end to the political crisis.
Lebanon has witnessed 15 attacks on politicians, journalists and public places since Hariri’s slaying on February 14, 2005.
Many Lebanese blame the attacks on Syria which denies any role in them. Government loyalists say the opposition wants to block the tribunal to protect Damascus.
The attacks were the first since the assassination of Gemayel, industry minister in Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government and there had been signs a deal was in the works to end the political crisis.
“Every time the possibility of practical solutions looms on the horizon between the Lebanese factions to strengthen their unity, the enemies of Lebanon rush to commit a new crime against innocents,” pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud said.
Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, an anti-Syrian politician who escaped an assassination bid in 2004, also said the attack should not hamper efforts to end the crisis.
“On the contrary, it should boost attempts and induce everyone to go into dialogue in a more determined manner,” he told Reuters.
EU president Germany, France, Britain and Egypt were among several countries to condemn the attacks.
“On the eve of the second anniversary of the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, the presidency of the European Union calls upon all sides in Lebanon to take a determined stand against violence and to do everything they can to prevent the situation from escalating,” the German foreign ministry said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Beirut and Paris bureaux