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Deadly blast in Lebanon fuels fears of increased ethnic tensions

KASLIK, Lebanon—A pre-dawn bombing Wednesday that killed three foreign workers in this trendy shopping district 10 miles north of Beirut heightened fears of ethnic strife and threatened to delay elections that are considered vital to ending political turmoil over Syrian domination of Lebanon.

The bombing was the second in five days to strike a Christian neighborhood in the Beirut region, where Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Druze have lived together in relative harmony since Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but many Lebanese believe it and the earlier explosion are intended to demonstrate that Lebanon still needs a Syrian security presence to maintain calm.

"Syria just wants people to be afraid because they are leaving, but we are not going to be afraid," said Roger Khoueiry, 38, a hotel worker who lives near the site of Wednesday's blast. "We've started to be patriotic for the first time in this country, and we aren't going to give up now."

Others predicted that the bombings would continue.

"The government and Syria would like to postpone the elections and this would be a pretext to say we can't hold it because of the violence," said Farid el Khazen, the chairman of the political studies department at the American University of Beirut and an opposition activist. "Therefore it will not be surprising if these criminal acts continue and move from one location to another."

Lebanon's opposition movement has been pressing for the removal of Syrian soldiers and intelligence officers from Lebanon after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a massive car bomb. Opposition leaders have blamed Syria for the attack—a charge Syria has denied.

Since Hariri's death, opposition protests have forced the resignation of the pro-Syrian Cabinet and prompted a pullback of Syria's 15,000 troops.

Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, in a statement issued by his office on Wednesday, denounced the recent bombings as "subversive acts carried out by parties who do not wish to see Lebanon prosper."

He vowed to conduct "speedy investigations" and beef up security.

The bombing came a day before the United Nations is expected to release a report into Hariri's assassination and on the same day that the Lebanese judge investigating the case resigned, citing exhaustion.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told Arab League leaders meeting in Algiers, Algeria, that the report wouldn't provide a definitive answer into who killed Hariri and that a fuller international investigation "may also be necessary." He didn't elaborate on the report's content.

But diplomats in Washington and New York said the report will conclude that Lebanese authorities tampered with evidence immediately after Hariri's assassination. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the report wasn't released yet.

The report also will say that Lebanon doesn't have the resources or technical expertise to conduct a full investigation, and it will propose a fuller international probe, the diplomats said.

Kaslik, which became a popular nightspot for Lebanese youth during the 15-year civil war, was unusually quiet Wednesday evening as shop owners assessed the damage and cleaning crews swept up shards of glass and debris.

The blast was caused by 110 pounds of explosives planted at a back entrance on the second floor of the Alta Vista shopping center, according to Lebanese LBC Television. Three Indian maintenance workers were killed and five other people were injured in the bombing.

While opposition sympathizers said they believed the bombings were intended to frighten them, some blamed pressure from the United States for a Syrian withdrawal.

"They want to interfere in this country and to change the balance of power and this is the result," said Samir Barud, 53, who owns two designer clothing stores that were damaged in the blast. "You see what they've done in Iraq and now this is going to happen to Lebanon."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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