At last it happened. Every one predicted - not least the United Nations officers on the team - that the international UN peacekeeping army in southern Lebanon would be attacked by a Sunni Muslim group attached to al-Qa'ida, and yesterday afternoon three Spanish and three Colombian soldiers paid with their lives for the fulfilment of this prediction.
A roadside bomb between the villages of Marjayoun and Khaim, only six miles from the Israeli border, exploded next to two UN armoured vehicles, killing five UN soldiers and wounding at least four others. Three of the injured were from Spain. The road was at the centre of fierce fighting between the Israeli army and Hizbollah last summer and it is possible - although highly unlikely - that the bombs were munitions left over from those battles. But the straight and remote road between the two villages has been cleared by de-mining officers in the months since the war, and the Lebanese army discovered months ago that Sunni groups around Tripoli had put together maps of southern Lebanon which showed UN patrol routes, including those of the Spanish army.
The Spanish suffered severely for their support for George Bush in the Iraq war, and now, it seems they are paying the price for being part of an expanded UN army in the south of Lebanon, one which was put in place with the encouragement of George Bush and Tony Blair to secure Israel's northern border after last summer's conflict. It is an international army commanded by four Nato generals, and many Lebanese regard it as an extension of Nato rather than a UN peacekeeping mission.
Lebanese fire brigade units as well as neighbouring UN contingents rushed to the scene of the attack, but elsewhere in Lebanon an almost equally dangerous outbreak of violence was taking place in the northern city of Tripoli. Here, Lebanese troops were forced to storm an apartment block in the Abu Samra neighbourhood after guerrillas from the Fatah al-Islam group - which the army has been fighting for at least 33 days in the Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Barad - took over the building. At least 10 of the armed men were killed when the soldiers burst into the building - only to find that the fighters had apparently murdered a young Lebanese policeman in front of his wife and young daughter.
At least 62 soldiers and 32 members of Fatah al-Islam - along with 30 civilians - have been killed in the camp, fighting that Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr rashly claimed last week to have ended in a Lebanese army victory. Yesterday violence in Tripoli was clearly intended to humiliate him.
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Previously, the UN has come under attack from Israeli forces, pro-Israeli guerrillas in southern Lebanon and, occasionally, from Palestinian and Hizbollah fighters. But the Hizbollah has been at great pains to try to protect the new UN force because they fear that just such an attack as occurred yesterday will prompt the US to claim falsely that it was their organisation - which is supported by Iran - that was responsible. In fact, intelligence officers from the French, Spanish and Italian embassies met secretly with Hizbollah officials in Sidon more than three weeks ago to seek assurances that Hizbollah would do their best, as the local armed militia, to protect the international force. The Hizbollah men agreed that they would do their best, but warned that al-Qa'ida-type groups in the Sunni areas of northern Lebanon may well try to breach their security. We shall now find out if America believes this - and it is the truth - or whether Western governments decide to blame Iran by claiming Hizbollah was behind the bombing of the UN troops.
The attack now raises serious questions about whether the enlarged, 11,000-strong UN army - originally placed in the south of the country in 1978 - can fulfil its duties as peacekeepers. Once a peacekeeping army's soldiers are assaulted, their first priority immediately becomes their own protection rather than that of the civilians around them, or the international Lebanese-Israel border which they patrol. Already massive concrete walls surround the various Nato contingents of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, since their officers have long feared just such an attack.
Lebanon therefore now descends into another, even more serious crisis involving not only their own semi-al-Qa'ida satellite groups, but Western armies as well. Whenever Nato has been involved in Lebanon in the past, it has always been attacked - most devastatingly when US Marines and French paratroopers were assaulted by suicide bombers in Beirut in 1982 at a cost of almost 300 lives. Scarcely an area of Lebanon has not been involved in violence in the past 12 months and each crisis has been worse than the previous crisis, so, as the Lebanese say, here we go again.
Robert Fisk is Middle East correspondent for The Independent.
© 2007 The Independent/UK