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Story Publication logo January 8, 2008

Ahead of Elections, Car Bomb Injures U.N. Peacekeepers in Lebanon

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All year, a string of car bombs, assassinations and the encampment of anti-government protesters in...

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Two United Nations peacekeeping soldiers were injured Tuesday by a roadside bomb on a coastal motorway south of Beirut.

Company Sgt. Dave Williams and regimental Sgt. Maj. John McCormack, both from Dublin, Ireland, were traveling in a U.N. vehicle when the bomb exploded at 2:50 p.m. local time, causing them "superficial injuries," according to Irish Lt. Col. Eamon O'Siochrú, head of the Irish team that is part of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

The explosion occurred near the town of Rmaileh, just outside Lebanon's third biggest city, Sidon, 35 kilometers south of Beirut.

The blast comes at a tense time in the country and the region. U.S. President George W. Bush is making his first visit to Israel and the West Bank this week in an effort to bolster the U.S.-brokered peace initiative kicked off at the Annapolis conference in late November.

UNIFIL is also investigating the launching of two Katyusha rockets into Israel from Southern Lebanon in the early hours of Tuesday morning, according to Reuters.

Having postponed elections 11 times, the government -- split between a Western-backed majority and a Hezbollah-led opposition -- will attempt to elect a new president this Saturday. The office has been vacant since November, when former president Emile Lahoud's term ended.

At the time of the explosion, the men were traveling from U.N. offices in Beirut to UNIFIL headquarters in the town of Naqoura, near the southern Lebanese border with Israel. They were immediately brought to Hammoud hospital in Sidon city, said O'Siucrú.

U.N. spokeswoman Yasmina Bouziane said an investigation has been launched into the incident and UNIFIL is working with Lebanese authorities to get to the bottom of the matter.

"This is an attack on the Lebanese authority and the Western forces in Lebanon," former UNIFIL spokesman Timor Goskel told World Politics Review. Goskel worked for UNIFIL from 1979-2003 and is a widely recognized expert on the mission.

"There are 50 or 60 U.N. vehicles which travel between Naqoura and Beirut every day and they have no choice but to take this route," he said, adding the bomb was strategically planted on a short detour around a bridge under construction, where traffic is forced to slow down.

This is the third attack on UNIFIL since June 2007, when peacekeepers in the force's Spanish contingent were killed by a car bomb. The next month, a Tanzanian convoy was targeted, with no casualties.

"I'm afraid there will be more of this," Goskel said of the attacks on UNIFIL, adding that it is not yet clear who is behind the attacks, but that their aim is to destabilize Lebanon and weaken Western influence here.

Both injured men are among the seven Irish U.N. personnel who remained in Lebanon after the October and November pullout of Ireland's contingent of 161 peacekeepers.

The 13,500-strong UNIFIL force was beefed up after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. It is mandated to keep the peace in a buffer zone in southern Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, which had been pushed north of the Litani river by the conflict.

"The fact that this happened in an area dominated by no one confession is significant," said Goskel. The fact that the area around Rmaileh has a mixture of Shiites, Christians and Druze means that the perpetrators could act without fear of retribution or interception from local powers, he said.

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