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Lebanese Defiant in Wake of Bombings

By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press Writer

March 23, 2005

JOUNIEH, Lebanon - Just hours after a bomb killed three people and heavily damaged a shopping mall in Lebanon's Christian heartland, defiant residents unfurled a giant Lebanese flag on the wrecked building, and shop owners began working to reopen their stores.

"The Lebanese people will not kneel. An explosion causes damage but we will repair," Raymond Muhanna said as he stood amid shattered glass in the electrical appliances shop where he works. "This will not destroy the Lebanese people."

Yet many Lebanese clearly are worried about where and when the next explosion will come — and whether their country is again headed toward sectarian fighting and economic turmoil after peaceful years that saw a rebirth from the devastating 1975-90 civil war.

Only last summer, as hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists poured in, officials spoke proudly of how secure Lebanon was compared with others in the Middle East.

But things have worsened dramatically: On Feb. 14, a huge bomb killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 17 others in Beirut, sparking a political crisis amid mass street protests against a 20-year occupation by Syrian troops.

Wednesday's bomb at the Alta Vista shopping center in Kaslik, on the southern outskirts of Jounieh, came only five days after a bombing that wounded nine people in another Christian neighborhood, Jdeideh in northern Beirut.

The bloodshed came as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned at an Arab League summit in Algeria that an international investigation into Hariri's murder might be necessary.

He told Arab leaders he expected to release soon a U.N. fact-finding team's report that is widely expected to criticize the Lebanese government's handling of the probe. "I believe a more comprehensive investigation may also be necessary," Annan said.

A Lebanese newspaper owned by Hariri's family said this week that the U.N. team will report that Lebanese authorities prematurely removed the vehicles of Hariri's motorcade from the scene of the blast and cleared the site before sufficient forensic evidence had been collected.

Lebanon's opposition has accused the government and Syria's regime of playing a role in the assassination — a charge both governments have denied.

The bombing at the Alta Vista shopping center damaged all 103 shops, which include European and local brands such as Spain's Bershka cloth store and Lebanon's Mouawad Jewelry. The center also had a Buddha Bar nightclub that was closed.

Since Hariri's assassination, much of Beirut's nightlife had shifted from downtown to the Kaslik and Jounieh area, a picturesque harbor where steep green mountains hug the Mediterranean.

Ibrahim Khoury, the shopping center's director, estimated damages at $3 million.

The 45-pound bomb is thought to have been placed in a leather bag at the building's back entrance. It destroyed most of the entrance, killing three workers who were sleeping in a room nearby and wounding four others.

Asked who he believed was behind the bombing, Khoury said, "I want to ask the Holy Spirit." But he expressed optimism about the future, pointing to shop owners who were already putting new glass on their shops and getting ready to open.

Samir Baroud, who owns two women clothing shops at Alta Vista, said his losses totaled about $25,000. As workers put a new glass, he said the shops would be cleaned up and reopen Friday.

But, unlike Khoury, he is worried about what lies ahead. "We hope this will be the last incident because more similar attacks will have very bad effects on the economy," he said.