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Syrian rebels claim suicide bombing in Hezbollah’s Beirut enclave

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Beirut – A Syrian rebel group aligned with al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed four people in a Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut on Tuesday, just days after Hezbollah was accused of shelling a pro-rebel town in eastern Lebanon.

Jabhat al-Nusra claimed the apparent suicide bombing on a street in the predominately Shiite neighbourhood of Haret Hreik, just steps from the scene of a similar bombing on January 2 that killed five. Al-Nusra said the attack was revenge for Friday’s rocket attack on the Syrian rebel stronghold of Arsal, Lebanon.

The bombing solidified the growing belief here that Syria’s civil war is now being played out on the streets of Beirut, and that Lebanon is entering a new stage of violence that could surpass anything the country has experienced in recent memory.

Despite its reputation for chaos, earned during the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, Lebanon hasn’t seen a major spate of targeted violence since 2008, when both the pace and the nature of the violence were different.

In recent months there have been six bombings aimed at Shiite neighbourhoods and three against Sunni targets. Unlike previous violence, the current one has featured as many as four suicide attacks – all against Shiite targets. That’s a break from tradition that alarms some. While Lebanese perfected the car bomb, suicide attacks have been relatively rare – the last confirmed one before the current outbreak dates to 1995.

Lebanese factions are deeply divided over the ongoing civil war in Syria, with Hezbollah and its allies supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community backs the rebels. Both sides have turned parts of the country into military enclaves.

The tensions have escalated into regular fighting in some areas – the northern city of Tripoli goes through cycles of sectarian militia violence, while Hezbollah patrols in the Bekaa Valley have begun regularly clashing with rebels using the border area as a safe haven for operations against Syrian government forces.

Witnesses described Tuesday’s blast as smaller than the six previous bombs that have hit Hezbollah-linked targets since July, with the National News Agency quoting investigators as saying only part of the bomber’s supply of explosives – mortar shells loaded in a car – detonated. But the bomber, who died in the blast, was unable to detonate his suicide vest as Hezbollah security forces surrounded him.

Both this explosion and a similar attack on January 2 took place within Hezbollah’s self-determined security zone, where the party uses its own forces to provide security and limits Lebanese government activity. The area is strictly off limits to foreign journalists without Hezbollah permission.

The notion that Lebanon has entered a period of open sectarian violence with increasingly frequent incidents of retaliation against entire communities deeply worries one of Lebanon’s most experienced political operators.

“Lebanon has entered a period of madness,” said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. “These [extremist groups] have embarked on terrorism that will grow worse. There will be more attacks and they will be worse.”

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