Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Blast rocks Beirut after Rice visit

UNCLEAR MOTIVES The bombing came just after the US secretary of state made a surprise visit to show support for what she called the `new Lebanon'

AFP , BEIRUT

A bomb blast rocked central Beirut Friday evening just hours after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to pledge her support for the "new Lebanon" ushered in by Syria's April troop pullout.

Three people were wounded in the explosion near the Rue Monot, a street popular with weekend revellers, the director general of internal security, General Ashraf Rifi, told the privately run Future TV.

Two vehicles were torched in the blast caused by a bomb placed under a car parked on a sidestreet, close to the privately run Saint Joseph University on the edge of Christian east Beirut, Rifi said.

The rival LBC television said six people had been wounded, mainly by flying glass.

It was not immediately clear if the motive of the bombing was political or a personal settling of accounts, although it came just hours after Rice flew out to Israel after her lightning visit.

LBC said the bombed vehicle belonged to local resident Joseph Nadim.

Lebanon has been rocked by no fewer than eight previous bombings already this year, most notoriously a February blast that killed billionaire five-time premier Rafiq Hariri and is currently being investigated by a UN team.

Rice had visited Beirut to pledge her support for the new government of prime minister-designate Fuad Siniora, the first formed since Syria ended its three-decade troop deployment under US-led pressure.

Addressing a joint news conference with Siniora, Rice promised strong US cooperation with his government, although she insisted there would be no change in policy towards Shiite militant group Hezbollah following its inclusion in the cabinet.

"I believe that we can support, both through international organizations and through direct support, the economic and political reforms that will be undertaken," said Rice, on the first visit by a US secretary of state to this Arab country in two years.

"What I am here to do is to support the new Lebanon. And the new Lebanon is one that is democratic. The new Lebanon is one that should be free of foreign influence," she said.

"It is a Lebanon in which Lebanese should make decisions for the Lebanese, it is one that must have international obligations that we fully expect to be carried out."

The last was a reference to Resolution 1559 passed by the UN Security Council last September which calls for the disarmament of all Lebanon's militias, including Hezbollah's military wing which still exclusively patrols the formerly Israeli-occupied south.

Rice insisted there would be no change in Washington's classification of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, despite the nomination of one of its 14 MPs -- Mohammed Fneish -- as energy minister.

The group "has a history of blood to it," she said.

A senior US official, who asked not to be named, said Rice's delegation would have nothing to do with Fneish during the lightning visit.

"We'll see how it goes in the future but I don't expect to be having any relations with the [Hezbollah] minister," the official said. "The minister of foreign affairs is not a member of the Hezbollah party, thank God."

The foreign minister -- Fawzi Salukh -- is a Shiite independent.

For his part, Siniora pledged to undertake a "strong and serious discussion" among Lebanese about implementation of Resolution 1559.

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