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Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2007, 19:04 GMT
Lebanon's fears after bus blasts
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Ain Aalaq, Lebanon

Tents in Ain Aalaq
The wreckage of the buses is now being investigated
Beyond the yellow police tape in the small mountainous village of Ain Aalaq stand two white marquee-style tents sheltering the metal carcasses of two bombed buses.

The two explosions killed three people commuting to Beirut, about 50km (31 miles) from this Christian heartland.

It was the latest attack in a long line of political assassinations and violence that has rocked Lebanon since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri two years ago in a massive car bomb.

But what was different about this bombing was that it was designed to randomly target civilians and possibly stir up communal strife.

'Iraqisation'

"At first, the bombings were against politicians and journalists," said Aziz Shyr, 38, sipping coffee with a friend outside a TV repair shop, just metres from the scene of the two explosions.

I don't think we're close to a civil war. But if you keep slapping a person or community then they will eventually react - and that's a big worry
Karim Makdisi, American University of Beirut

"But now they have started planting bombs on buses which is a really dangerous step."

One prominent Lebanese newspaper even went as far as saying the attack was the beginning of the "Iraqisation" of the country.

Since the death of Mr Hariri, Lebanon has been polarised into two main political camps - the anti-Syrian factions that support the current government and the opposition led by Hezbollah.

But the sectarian breakdown is more complex.

Generally speaking, the Shia Muslims support Hezbollah, while Sunni Muslims and the Druze are firmly behind the government. The Christian community straddles both camps.

Government supporters accuse the opposition and Syria of being behind the spate of bombings and assassinations.

'Political attack'

But within the Christian community there is a growing feeling - particularly after the bus bombings - that they are being singled out for sectarian attacks.

Lebanese soldier at scene of Lebanon bus blasts
Several other vehicles were badly damaged by the blasts

"We are concerned that this might happen a lot," said Salim Rashid, 47, a resident of Ain Aalaq.

In a country that was wracked by 15 years of civil war, this is a worrying development.

Prominent Lebanese columnist Rami Khouri said that the bus bombings were a "painful remainder" of the civil war, which was triggered by an attack on a bus and which often broke along sectarian lines.

Yet some commentators view the bus bombings as a non-sectarian but political attack.

Dr Paul Salem, director of the Middle East Carnegie Centre in Beirut, said that if the bombings had been designed to spark serious sectarian violence, the Christians would not have been the obvious choice.

"The big sectarian spilt right now in Lebanon is between the Sunni and Shia Muslims," he said.

"If there was an incident like the bus bombings against either of the communities it would have been far more serious."

'Answers needed'

One of the major problems with the bombings and assassinations in the last two years is that no-one has claimed responsibility or been charged with carrying out these attacks.

Most of the cases are being investigated by an international tribunal.

But these seemingly open-ended investigations, says Dr Karim Makdisi, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut, lead to growing sectarian tensions even if the attacks were not necessarily carried out for this reason.

"People's perception and reality will start to blur if we don't get answers to these attacks," he said.

"I don't think we're close to a civil war. But if you keep slapping a person or community then they will eventually react - and that's a big worry."




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