Bomb batters US car in Beirut
3 Lebanese die; Americans warned
BEIRUT - A bomb hidden on a Beirut highway hit a US Embassy vehicle yesterday, killing at least three Lebanese bystanders in the first attack in years targeting American diplomatic interests in the country.
The car's Lebanese driver and an American at a nearby school were among five people injured.
The blast, just before a farewell reception for the US ambassador in downtown Beirut, came amid accelerating political tensions in Lebanon, with the US-backed government and Syrian-backed opposition deadlocked over choosing a new president.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed outrage over the attack, calling it an act of terrorism.
"The United States will, of course, not be deterred in its efforts to help the Lebanese people, to help the democratic forces in Lebanon, to help Lebanon resist force and interference in their affairs," she told reporters while visiting the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the latest stop in President Bush's Mideast tour this week.
The US Embassy said it was limiting movement of its personnel as a result of the attack. It also urged Americans in Lebanon to maintain a high level of vigilance, avoid popular gathering spots, and report suspicious activity to police.
It appeared to be the first time the United States has been targeted in a politically motivated attack in Lebanon since the mid-1980s, when US troops were deployed after Israel's invasion of the country and as a civil war was raging.
During that time, Lebanon was the scene of some of the deadliest terrorist attacks against Americans in US history, including the 1983 Marine barracks bombing that killed 241 US service members. That attack prompted then-President Ronald Reagan to withdraw American forces from Lebanon. The same year, the US Embassy was hit by a car bomb, killing 17 Americans. Also, several Americans were targeted in a series of kidnappings.
The bomb yesterday was hidden among garbage containers near the main Mediterranean coastal highway in north Beirut's predominantly Christian Dora-Karantina neighborhood. The powerful blast went off as the armored US Embassy SUV passed.
Mathew Clason, a Minnesota native on a two-week visit to Lebanon, said he was teaching at the nearby National Evangelical Church when the bomb went off.
"The windows blew in and I fell down. I was knocked out. I don't know exactly what happened," Clason told Associated Press Television News while in the emergency room corridor of Jeitawi Hospital in Beirut. His head and right leg were bandaged.
The SUV was damaged, but the brunt of the blast was taken by a BMW behind it, in which two people were killed, Lebanese security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. The third dead person was not immediately identified.
No Americans were in the targeted car, which was carrying two Lebanese embassy employees, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington. The driver was lightly injured, he said.
There were conflicting accounts of the death toll. The State Department, based on information provided by the US Embassy in Beirut, said four people had been killed. But Lebanese Red Cross spokesman Iyad al-Munzer said three were killed, and two senior Lebanese security officials corroborated that.
The US Embassy canceled a banquet for departing Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, scheduled for yesterday evening at Beirut's seaside Phoenicia Hotel, about two miles away from where the blast occurred. It was not clear whether the employees in the car targeted were heading to the banquet.
McCormack said agents from the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security would be working with Lebanese authorities to investigate the attack.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora called an emergency Cabinet meeting late yesterday.
Washington has strongly backed Saniora's anti-Syrian government in its long political standoff with the opposition led by Syria's ally, the Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah. Each side often accuses the other's international patron of seeking to control Lebanon.