BEIRUT, Lebanon – A bomb exploded on a narrow street crowded with bars and restaurants late Friday, wounding 12 people just hours after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) visited the area, officials said.
The blast, from a bomb placed near a car parked in front of a restaurant, panicked the hundreds of people dining or smoking water pipes in the bustling sidewalk cafes on popular Monot Street. Lebanese families and Arab tourists, including black-veiled women visiting from the Gulf, scattered.
Three cars were damaged by the 50-pound bomb. Security and hospital officials said 12 people were wounded.
Lebanon has seen a string of bomb assassinations of politicians and other figures in recent months — almost all opponents of Syria. But Friday's blast did not appear to have a particular target.
Instead, the attack was a "message" to the new government, announced this week and dominated by anti-Syrian ministers, said Tourism Minister Joseph Sarkis. He said the blast aimed to shake security and scare off the thousands of tourists, mainly from oil-rich Gulf countries, who spend summer vacations in Lebanon.
"It is a message against the government, against national reconciliation and national unity," Sarkis told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel.
Rice made a surprise visit Friday to give her support to the new government, whose creation crowns the crumbling of Syria's long domination of Lebanon — a major U.S. goal. She left the country several hours before the blast, but earlier in the day visited the grave of slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri (search) about 600 yards from the site of the explosion.
Hariri's slaying, in a massive explosion that killed 20 other people on Feb. 14, sparked widespread protests against Syria, which many people blamed for the assassination. Since then, two other anti-Syrian politicians have been killed by bombs placed in their cars, and a bomb wounded the outgoing defense minister, a supporter of Syria (search).
Other bombings in March and June targeted shopping and commercial areas in Christian areas, killing three people and injuring more than 35. Monot Street is in Ashrafiya, a largely Christian neighborhood of Beirut.
Michel Pharaon, state minister for parliament affairs, said the blast was "a message of terror."
"The Lebanese people will continue the march of national peace, freedom and democracy," Pharaon said at the bombing site late Friday.
Anger over Hariri's slaying helped push Syria into withdrawing its troops from Lebanon in April, ending a 29-year military presence. Since then, Damascus' political control has also been crumbling, with the formation this week of the first government dominated by anti-Syrian politicians.
Separately, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a report Friday that southern Lebanon remains volatile and United Nations peacekeepers deployed there since 1978 should remain for now.
With continued attacks along the so-called Blue Line, drawn by the United Nations (search) to mark Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, the estimated 2,000 peacekeepers still play a crucial role, Annan's report to the U.N. Security Council said.
He recommended that the peacekeepers' mandate, set to expire at the end of July, be extended by another six months. A peacekeeping team had visited Lebanon to assess the situation.