Five UN peacekeepers were killed by a car bomb in southern Lebanon on Sunday, further rattling security as another 11 people died in fighting with Islamists in the north.Two Spaniards and three Colombians serving in the Spanish contingent of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) were killed by the bomb, which a Lebanese security source said was detonated by remote control as their armoured vehicle passed by.
Another three Spanish troops were wounded in the first fatal attack on UN peacekeepers since UNIFIL’s mandate was expanded last year in the wake of a devastating 34-day war between Israeli troops and Hizbollah in southern Lebanon.
A Spanish colonel told AFP it was a “deliberate attack” in the Marjayoun-Khiyam valley, an area frequently patrolled by the peacekeepers only some 10 kilometres from the Israeli border.
“This attack was very well prepared in advance,” the Spanish officer said at the scene. “The bodies of two of the victims were blown several metres by the force of the blast.”
In Madrid, Spanish Defence Minister Jose Antonio Alonso told a televised news conference that his country “supports and will continue to support the United Nations UNIFIL mission”.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Lebanese judicial sources have told AFP that captured Islamist fighters from a group battling the army in the north of the country have threatened attacks on UN peacekeepers.
“During questioning, some members of Fateh Islam confessed that one of the main aims of their group was to carry out attacks on UNIFIL in southern Lebanon,” one source said.
UNIFIL first deployed in Lebanon in 1978 after an Israeli invasion but was expanded from some 2,000 members after the July-August war between Israel and Hizbollah fighters who dominated the south of the country.
The attack came on top of a series of car bombings targeting anti-Syrian politicians in and around Beirut and as the army pursued its bloodiest internal fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war with Fateh Islam in the north.
Hizbollah was quick to condemn the bombing in an area considered its stronghold.
“Hizbollah vigorously condemns the attack [and] considers it a suspicious act which hurts Lebanon and its inhabitants,” the group said in a statement.
“This act of aggression is aimed at increasing insecurity in Lebanon, especially in the south of the country.” Southern Lebanon is the heartland of Hizbollah whose disarmament UNIFIL is supposed to be monitoring in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended the war with Israel on August 11, 2006.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her French counterpart Bernard Kouchner jointly condemned the bombing as Rice visited Paris for an international conference on Sudan’s Darfur conflict.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said the attack was part of a “campaign of destabilisation” against his country, which has been rocked by political assassinations and the ongoing fighting with Islamist extremists.
“This aggression can only reinforce our determination to strengthen the cooperation of the Lebanese army with UNIFIL,” he said.
Spain has deployed nearly 1,100 troops to southeastern Lebanon near the border with Israel as part of UNIFIL, which now has 13,225 soldiers from 30 countries.
In the north, 11 people died in clashes in the port city of Tripoli overnight Saturday, including six Sunni Islamists from Fateh Islam and a policeman’s 10-year-old daughter, the army said.
Two civilians, one soldier and the police sergeant also died in a three-hour firefight which erupted as the army raided the apartment of a gunman, an army spokesman said.
The fighting began when gunmen opened up with automatic weapons on an army jeep in the Abu Samra district of northern Lebanon’s port city, killing one soldier.
A military statement said 11 soldiers were also wounded, some seriously, in the first clashes in the mainly Sunni Muslim city since fighting erupted five weeks ago between Fateh Islam and the army at a nearby refugee camp.
Fighters loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ mainstream Fateh faction said that they had killed three Islamists at the Nahr Bared camp.
At least 161 people, including some 60 Islamists and 80 soldiers, are known to have died in the violence but precise figures are unavailable.
About 2,000 residents of the camp’s pre-battle population of 31,000 are still inside Nahr Bared.
In Paris, Rice earlier called on the international community to send a “very strong message” to Syria â€” blamed for supporting extremists in Lebanon â€” that continued interference would not be tolerated.
Syria denies any involvement in the unrest in its smaller neighbour.