• Bombing, arrests spark fear in Lebanon
     | June 21,2014
    ap photo

    Lebanese police intelligence gather outside a hotel after security forces raided there in Beirut’s Hamra district, Lebanon, Friday. Security forces raided the hotel over suspected “terrorist cells” inside it, a police official said. In eastern Lebanon, a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle Friday near a police checkpoint, killing a few people amid heightened concerns of renewed violence, the country’s state-run news agency and security officials said.

    BEIRUT — A suicide bomber detonated his vehicle Friday near a police checkpoint in eastern Lebanon, while troops raided two hotels in the capital, arresting 17 suspected members of an al-Qaida breakaway group allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in the country.

    It was not clear if the two incidents were related. But the bombing — the first since March — along with the security dragnet in and around Beirut sparked fears of renewed violence in a country which has been buffeted by the conflict in neighboring Syria.

    Al-Qaida-inspired militants have claimed bombings in the past, particularly against the Shiite group Hezbollah. Still, Friday’s bombing was the first in several months, suggesting a possible link to events in Iraq, where the al-Qaida splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has seized large chunks of territory in the country’s north.

    A Lebanese security official confirmed that the arrests in Beirut Friday netted suspected members of the group. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with security regulations.

    A security report obtained by the AP suggested members of the group may have been planning multiple suicide attacks following Friday prayers in Beirut. It said at least one of the wanted militants was a Saudi national.

    If the claims of the planned terrorist attacks turn out to be true, it would suggest that the group is expanding its operations beyond Syria and Iraq.

    The security operation in Beirut’s bustling Hamra district began Friday morning. Dozens of security forces blocked roads leading in and out of the area before raiding the Napoleon hotel, where they detained several people. The men were seen being led into police vehicles, arms behind their backs, their faces covered with their T-shirts.

    Security forces later entered another nearby hotel.

    U.S. Ambassador David Hale meanwhile cancelled a visit Friday to the Foreign Ministry for security reasons, the National News Agency said. The U.S. Embassy and the United Nations refugee agency also canceled a meeting scheduled for Friday afternoon in Beirut.

    The United States condemned the checkpoint bombing. “These attacks threaten the principles of stability, freedom and safety that the people of Lebanon are working hard to uphold, and we urge all parties to refrain from retaliatory acts that contribute to the cycle of violence,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

    A meeting organized by Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim Amal party scheduled to take place in Beirut was postponed. The party is headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who was expected to attend the gathering. The event was scrapped based on a report of a planned terrorist attack received by the Interior Ministry, a security official said.

    A few hours later, a blast struck the town of Dahr el-Baidar, at the entrance to eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on a busy highway that links the Lebanese and Syrian capitals.

    Lt. Col. Joseph Msallam, a police spokesman, said the explosion killed an officer and wounded 19 people, including six police officers. Troops sealed the area around the explosion.

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