SIDON, Lebanon – A gunman fired three bullets into the head of an American missionary Thursday at the clinic where she worked as a nurse. It was believed to be the first targeted killing of a U.S. citizen in Lebanon in more than a decade.
Bonnie Penner, 31, was slain at the Unity Center, which houses a Christian chapel and a clinic.
Investigators said they believe the gunman knocked at the door of the clinic and shot Penner in the head with a 7mm pistol. A colleague found the woman's body lying in a pool of blood, police said.
The center's director, the Rev. Sami Dagher, said there were no threats before the killing and the motive was not known. The clinic provides medical care and help to local people and Palestinian refugees in a nearby camp in southern Lebanon.
"Bonnie died because she loved the people of Sidon," Dagher told reporters.
"May God forgive them," he said of the attackers.
The killing occurred around 8 a.m., just after Penner opened the center.
Penner, a nurse married to a British citizen, Garry Whitherall, had worked for about two years for the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Lebanon, according to officials from the U.S. and British embassies. She was originally from California, but her hometown was not available.
School records in Vancouver, Wash., show Penner attended Walnut Grove Elementary School in 1977 and graduated from Fort Vancouver High School in June 1990.
U.S. Embassy officials emerged from the clinic later Thursday with Penner's husband, who hid his face and declined to talk to reporters. He left in an embassy vehicle.
U.S. Ambassador Vincent Battle met in Beirut with Interior Minister Elias Murr to discuss the killing. No details about the meeting were disclosed.
The U.S. Embassy issued a warning on its Web site asking Americans in Lebanon "to remain vigilant with regard to their personal security and to exercise caution."
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri condemned the killing, saying "there is nothing to justify this heinous crime." He said the killing was designed to undermine Lebanon's security and hurt its foreign relations, according to a statement issued by his office.
Within hours of the crime, a sign was posted at the center's gate reading: "With regret, we announce that all the Unity Center's activities have been suspended for now."
The owner of a grocery shop next door described Penner as a humanitarian who would buy a chocolate bar from him every day, always greeting him in Arabic.
"She was nice, modest and decent," said the shopkeeper, who refused to give his name.
Officials and legislators in Sidon condemned the slaying and urged authorities to find the killer.
"What happened is considered a threat to our security and the country's safety," said Bahiya Hariri, a lawmaker and a sister of Hariri.
Lebanon, which shares borders with Syria and Israel, saw many attacks against Americans during its civil war in the 1980s.
More than 270 Americans were killed in shootings and suicide bombings, including two that targeted U.S. Embassy buildings and one that destroyed the U.S. Marine base in Beirut. Other Americans were kidnapped and held hostage for years, prompting the State Department to declare Lebanon off-limits to Americans. The travel ban was lifted in 1997, after security improved.
Resentment of Americans has been growing across the Middle East in the face of a possible war in Iraq. Many Arabs also believe the United States has sided with Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Washington's designation of Hezbollah guerrillas as terrorists is another point of division. The Lebanese see Hezbollah as both an influential political faction and a resistance movement that helped end the 18-year Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon.
On Nov. 12, small bombs exploded outside three American fast-food restaurants in Lebanon, causing damage but no casualties. There have been numerous such attacks this year.
Earlier this year, during a visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell, thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians protested, burning U.S. and Israeli flags and shouting, "Death to America! Death to Israel!"