By Rym Ghazal and Mohammed Zaatari
BEIRUT/SIDON: Two roadside bombs went off outside the Southern city of Sidon Tuesday, killing four bodyguards of a senior Lebanese intelligence officer and wounding four others, including the officer.
Lieutenant Colonel Samir Shehade holds a senior post in the Interior Ministry’s intelligence branch and played a leading role in Lebanon’s investigation into the February 14, 2005, assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Tuesday’s attack was the first bombing since May 26, when a leader of the Palestinian faction Islamic Jihad and his brother were killed in Sidon by a bomb planted in their car.
According to police reports, two bombs exploded simultaneously at around 10 a.m. Tuesday as two cars carrying Shehade and his companions passed through the coastal village of Rmeileh, near the Southern port town of Sidon, on their way to intelligence headquarters in Beirut.
Witnesses told The Daily Star that despite the fact that Shehade had been pulled out of the car with shrapnel wounds all over his body, he was “conscious and seemed in control.” Shehade was taken to the Hammoud Hospital in Sidon and is currently under the protection of security officers.
Acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat told The Daily Star that Shehade was in a “stable and good condition.”
“There were two bombs placed 4 meters from each other that appear to have been triggered simultaneously by remote control,” the minister said.
Sergeant Wissam Harb, one of the intelligence officer’s bodyguards, was killed instantly in the blast. Three other bodyguards, Sergeant Chehab Hassan Aoun, First Sergeant Namir Yassin and First Sergeant Omar Hajj Shehade, were seriously wounded and later died in hospital.
The wounded, in addition to Shehade, were identified as First Sergeant Zaher Qadeh, army soldier Jihad al-Dabit and Ahmad Rabeeh, an engineer working on nearby roadworks.
Asked whether the latest bombing could be linked to a series of attacks dating back to October 2004, Fatfat said: “No, this one was different. It was more professional and seems to be an isolated incident.” Police reports said Shehade was traveling in a white “decoy” Nissan Pathfinder followed by a black Pathfinder. The black Nissan suffered a direct hit, killing all passengers.
During a news conference held after an emergency meet-ing with his security chiefs, Fatfat said the attack was “a message targeting the security apparatus that has been making great progress in the past year” into Hariri’s murder.
Shehade had been coordinating with the UN investigation commission probing Hariri’s assassination and was directly involved in the arrests of the four former heads of the country’s security apparatus currently awaiting trial in the 2005 murder.
He also interrogated a discredited Syrian witness, Husam Taher Husam.
Fatfat speculated that the attack could be linked to the report due out next Friday from the UN probe’s lead investigator, Serge Brammertz.
“We have to be careful not to turn this incident into a political campaign,” he said.
“I refuse to make any accusations at this point, especially given the sensitive period Lebanon is going through after the war,” Fatfat added.
However, the acting interior minister said preventing “infiltration” during the recent war with Israel had been difficult and spoke of the “difficulty of dealing with arms outside of the Palestinian refugee camps.” Fatfat repeatedly said the attack had nothing to do with Hizbullah.
“Security officials, especially those in intelligence, are under constant threat and have been targeted in the past,” he added.
Holding up two pieces of shrapnel from the crime scene, Fatfat said the two bombs were filled with “hundreds of pieces of shrapnel” and had been “locally produced and carried out with great precision.”
“Luck saved Shehade,” the minister added.
Security sources reported a series of arrests of Palestinian and Syrian nationals at the bomb site who had been selling lottery tickets, a claim dismissed by Fatfat.
“No arrests have been made. Only witnesses’ testimonies have been taken,” he said.
In addition to the Hariri file, security sources said that Shehade had recently been threatened over his handling of a file on Al-Qaeda suspects in Lebanon. The intelligence officer had taped the threats, made by Syrian officials and Al-Qaeda members, they added.
Security sources also dismissed any links to a similar attack on December 12, 2005, that killed prominent journalist and MP Gebran Tueni. Both incidents involved roadside bombs, the sources said, but very different devices.