A roadside bomb wounded five French UN peacekeepers on patrol in southern Lebanon on Friday, in an attack the Lebanese president said was aimed at driving French troops out of the country.
The UN Security Council strongly condemned the third attack this year against the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
The bomb targeted a French UNIFIL patrol on the southern outskirts of the coastal city of Tyre, a security official said. Five peacekeepers and two civilians were hurt, officials said.
An AFP correspondent in Tyre saw three peacekeepers — a woman and two men — standing by their badly damaged white vehicle with bandages on their heads. One had a bloodied face. None had life-threatening injuries, officials said.
“This vile and despicable act not only aims to cause harm to the peacekeepers but also to undermine the stability and peace that have been prevailing in the south,” UNIFIL commander Major-General Alberto Asarta Cuevas said in a statement.
UNIFIL patrols have been the target of a string of unclaimed roadside bomb attacks in recent years.
Friday’s blast took place amid heightened tension over the revolt in Syria, with politicians and diplomats warning the unrest could spill into Lebanon, whose government is dominated by the pro-Syrian militant group Hezbollah.
The UNIFIL force stationed in the south of the country is considered an easy target if unrest did spread to Lebanon.
The office of Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, who is on a visit to Armenia, issued a statement denouncing the attack.
“This terrorist attack is aimed at pressuring these (French) troops to leave Lebanon and to pave the way for (further) terrorist acts,” Sleiman said.
“Lebanon’s security agencies will do everything to find and arrest those responsible for the explosion,” he added.
The United States condemned the bombing and urged Beirut to tackle its security problems in the south.
“We again strongly underscore the need for Lebanon to exercise full sovereignty over its territory,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement, alluding to the control exerted by Hezbollah in the south.
“Lebanon must ensure its armed forces serve as Lebanon’s sole defence force with a monopoly on the use of force and the possession of arms. All other armed groups should be disarmed,” Nuland said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe strongly condemned the “cowardly” attack, saying in a statement that Paris would “not be intimidated by such vile acts” while UN leader Ban Ki-moon described the bombing as “deeply disturbing”.
MP Marwan Hamadeh, a leading member of the Western-backed opposition in Lebanon, blamed Damascus for Friday’s attack, saying it was orchestrated with the help of Hezbollah.
“It is clear that Syria was behind what happened today and the messenger was Hezbollah,” Hamadeh, who narrowly escaped death in a car bombing in 2004, told AFP. “Nothing happens in that region without Hezbollah’s approval.”
“The Syrians have accused France of being at the forefront of what they believe is a foreign plot to destabilise their country and everyone felt that something was bound to happen,” Hamadeh added.
But Hezbollah in a statement denounced the roadside bombing. “We call on Lebanon’s security services to do their utmost to stop such attacks,” it said.
Spain currently commands the 12,100-strong UNIFIL force, which was founded in 1978 and expanded after a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
France has one of the largest contingents with 1,300 soldiers.
In July, six French UNIFIL troops were wounded, one of them seriously, in the southern coastal town of Sidon, in an attack similar to Friday’s. In May, six Italian peacekeepers were wounded in Sidon, also in a roadside bombing.
Three Spanish and three Colombian peacekeepers were killed in June 2007 when a booby-trapped car exploded as their patrol vehicle drove by.