BEIRUT: A car bomb killed at least 21 people and wounded 250 in the southern suburb of Beirut Thursday, Lebanese officials said, and security sources said investigators are looking into accounts the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber.
The evening attack, which the Lebanese Army confirmed was a car bomb, occurred in the neighborhood of Ruwaiss, a Hezbollah stronghold, as residents had been returning home from their businesses.
Security sources earlier put the death toll at 22.
Lebanon has seen a spike of security incidents linked to the crisis in neighboring Syria, particularly after Hezbollah said in May it was fighting with forces loyal to President Bashar Assad against rebels there.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said investigators are looking at witness reports that a suicide bomber detonated the car in the middle the road.
Panic and urgency prevailed at the site of the explosion, which sent plumes of smoke in the Beirut sky that could be seen from miles away.
People trapped in burning buildings cried out for help from windows.
As ambulances arrived, people from the neighborhood helped firefighters carry hoses and buckets of water to put out the flames engulfing nearby cars and buildings.
The Lebanese Red Cross said it dispatched 15 ambulances as part of its response and was coordinating with other organizations to evacuate residents.
Locals voiced mixed reactions to the explosive that left extensive damage in its wake.
Iman Jabak, 43 ,and her two daughters Rawane Charara and Reine Charara were out shopping for clothes for their little brother when the blast occurred.
According to Reine, Hezbollah had upped security to the maximum since attacks on the suburbs.
“We’re used to it,” Reine, 18, told The Daily Star. “They promised us more and we’re ready,” she added in reference to Hezbollah’s foes.
While the two sisters were acting cool about it, their mother wasn’t as composed. Their house, located close to the blast, was in good shape except for some shattered glass.
Unlike her daughters, Iman Jabbak was tense and stuttering.
“We will never get used to it,” she said. “We are sick of all this.”
A previously unheard of group calling itself the “Brigade of Aisha, the Mother of the Faithful” claimed responsibility for the attack.
This is the second car bombing attack to target a neighborhood seen as a Hezbollah stronghold in the Lebanese capital in less than two months.
On July 9, over 50 people were wounded after a car blast ripped through the Bir al-Abed neighborhood.
Four people were also wounded in a twin rocket attack on Shiyah in the southern suburb in May. That attack came hours after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah confirmed his group was fighting alongside Assad’s forces.
Political and religious figures of various stripes condemned Thursday’s car bombing, with many hinting or directly accusing Israel of being behind the attack.
Nasrallah claimed Wednesday Hezbollah fighters had been responsible for last week’s wounding of several Israeli soldiers who crossed the border into Lebanon. The Hezbollah chief said explosives remotely detonated by his fighters had led to the Israeli casualties.
He vowed his group would not hesitate to take similar actions in the future. - With additional reporting by Brooke Anderson