A series of suicide bombings and other attacks, including one outside a church, rocked a mainly Christian Lebanese village near the Syrian border on Monday, killing five people and wounding nearly 30, officials and witnesses said.
Four suicide bombers struck in the village of Qaa early on Monday morning, causing the fatalities and wounding 15 people. That evening, as friends and family members of the victims gathered outside a church, two men on a motorcycle threw a grenade before blowing themselves up, wounding another 13.
The unprecedented attacks triggered fear and panic among village residents, who barricaded themselves indoors. The army issued a statement urging people to avoid gatherings and to cooperate with local authorities.
Violence from the Syrian civil war has spilled over the border in the past, inflaming Lebanon’s own political divisions and raising concerns over the more than one million Syrian refugees there, who now make up a fifth of the tiny country’s population.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and the nationalities of the attackers remained unknown.
A security official said the evening explosions took place while families of those killed in the earlier bombings were gathering to prepare for funerals. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. Lebanon’s official National News Agency said 13 people were wounded in the late night explosions.
Fr Elian Nasrallah, a local priest, said the explosions went off near the Saint Elias church and were followed by gunfire.
The security official said the Lebanese army was combing the village for more attackers and has imposed a cordon, using flares to light up the area.
Governor Bashir Khedr announced a curfew for Syrian refugees in the village and surrounding areas.
An eyewitness said the first four attackers raised suspicions when they passed through the village before dawn. When civilian village guards called out to them, they threw a hand grenade. The witness spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
The town’s mayor, Bashir Matar, said residents began gathering after the first explosion, and that the other bombers targeted the crowd, one after the other.
“As we were treating some of the wounded, I saw the fourth suicide attacker coming toward me. I shouted at him,” Matar told the Al-Mayadeen TV network. “We opened fire toward him and he blew up.”
George Kitane, the head of paramedics at the Lebanese Red Cross, confirmed the death toll and said the 15 wounded were taken to nearby hospitals. He said several others were treated on the spot. One of the four explosions struck an ambulance for the village’s archbishopric, killing its driver, residents said.
A Lebanese military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said four soldiers were among the wounded in the earlier attacks. Prime Minister Tammam Salam declared Tuesday a national day of mourning.
Qaa and the nearby Ras Baalbek are the only two villages with a Christian majority in the predominantly Shiite Hermel region, where the Shiite Hezbollah group holds sway. The group has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to bolster President Bashar Assad’s forces against the predominantly Sunni rebels trying to topple him.
Sunni extremists have carried out several attacks in the border area since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, leading the Christians of Qaa to set up self-defense units for their village. Since mid-2014, the Lebanese army has stepped up operations and patrols in the area, leading to a drop in bombings and shelling.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV blamed Monday’s attack on ISIS, which has claimed previous attacks in Lebanon.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, visiting Qaa after the morning attacks, said the village formed part of a “fence” for Lebanon. “When a terrorist enters, he can go anywhere,” he said.
Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement party, sparked condemnation Sunday for calling on municipalities under his party’s control to ban any gathering or camps of Syrian refugees. The FPM commands the largest Christian bloc in parliament.
On Monday, Bassil said he did not want to “tie any particular nationality or religion to terrorism.” But he said “no one can deny the reality that displacement will be used as a cover for terrorism.”
The area of Mashrea Qaa – a predominantly Sunni area near Qaa – is home to a large number of Syrian refugees.