Al-Qaida ally suspected as explosion kills 18

TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- A roadside bomb packed with nuts and bolts exploded near a bus in this northern city Wednesday, killing 18 soldiers and civilians in Lebanon's deadliest bombing in more than three years.

Many suspected the attack was staged by an al-Qaida-inspired group to avenge a 2007 military offensive. Some questioned whether it was an attempt to disrupt a trip by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to Syria later in the day to patch up relations between the neighboring nations.

That visit brought a key agreement for the two countries to establish full diplomatic relations for the first time, a move that could ease tensions that have fueled Lebanon's turmoil.

On Tuesday, the Lebanese parliament approved a new national unity government in Beirut that groups pro-Western factions and Syria's ally, the Hezbollah militant group -- another step that Lebanese hope will move the country past three years of political crisis.

But the attack in Lebanon's second largest city cast a shadow over political progress.

The bomb, detonated by remote control, went off around 8 a.m. during rush hour just as the bus pulled to the curb to pick up passengers on a main street in Tripoli. It flung shrapnel through the bus and the nearby sidewalk crowded with people headed to work.

The bus -- coming from Akkar, a region farther north where many military personnel live -- was pockmarked with holes, its windows shattered. Soldiers and bystanders carried away the dozens of wounded on downtown Banks Street, which was littered with glass.

"I jumped out of my car and saw bodies in the streets," said Nabil Sebaei, owner of the nearby Rivoli theater. "Wherever I saw a body moving, I helped carry them to a car to drive them to the hospital."

"There is no religion in the world that accepts such acts," Sebaei said, visibly shaken.

Security officials said 10 soldiers and eight civilians were killed and 46 people wounded, while a senior military officer said 15 died. The security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak with reporters, said several bodies had been torn to pieces, complicating the count.

The army described the blast as a "terrorist attack directly targeting the army."

Suspicion quickly fell on Fatah Islam, an al-Qaida-inspired Sunni extremist group that soldiers drove out of the nearby Palestinian refugee camp, Nahr el-Bared, in months-long battle last year. The fighting killed hundreds of people and destroyed much of the camp.