TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Two car bombs outside mosques in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli following Friday prayers killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 400, security sources said, as the country’s caretaker defense minister warned of a ‘terrorist scheme’ aimed at further violence.
The two afternoon blasts, one outside the Taqwa Mosque that was soon followed by another outside the Salam Mosque as hundreds of worshipers finished Friday prayers, highlighted the deteriorating security situation in Tripoli, the scene of repeated bouts of clashes linked to the war in Syria.
The violence in Tripoli comes only eight days after a car bomb killed 30 people and wounded over 300 in the Ruwaiss area of the southern suburb of Beirut, in an incident that was followed by bolstered security throughout the country and a string of arrests linked to an alleged car-bombing network.
Security sources told The Daily Star the first blast occurred near the Taqwa Mosque at 1.50 p.m. where Salafist Sheikh Salem al-Rafei, a staunch opponent of President Bashar Assad, was delivering a sermon.
The sources said the car bomb on Maarad Street, near the Salam Mosque, occurred moments after the first blast. The sermon at that mosque had been delivered by Bilal Baroudi, also a Salafist preacher.
Baroudi and Rafei, who were unscathed in the attacks, held later in the day an urgent meeting with figures and lawmakers from Tripoli about the day’s events.
Speaking earlier to Al-Jazeera, Rafei said he was delivering a speech at the time of the blast and said he had been advised by security officials to remain vigilant as he was a target of assassination.
Thick plumes of black smoke blanketed Tripoli’s sky as emergency response units rushed to the scene of the explosions.
“It was as if there was an earthquake: the whole city seemed to be shaking,” Nada Fallah, whose lives near the Salam Mosque, told The Daily Star.
Dozens of cars in the immediate vicinity of the mosques were set on fire and the streets were filled the bodies of wounded and dead with glass and wreckage hampering rescue efforts.
Panicked residents rushed to help pull out the dead and wounded, some of whom were trapped in burning or wrecked cars.
One group of locals ran from the chaos at the Taqwa Mosque blast site carrying the body of a casualty whose limbs oozed blood.
TV footage showed the petrified corpse of a male victim on the ground still clinging to a Lebanese flag.
Buildings located near the two mosques were heavily damaged and initial reports indicated that parts of the ceiling at the Taqwa Mosque had collapsed.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said the explosive used outside the Salam Mosque weighed 100 kilograms.
Hala Shamma, a resident of the northern city, said her husband, Raed, was among the wounded from the car bombing outside the Salam Mosque.
“He was praying at the Salam Mosque and was severely wounded in the head after leaving the sermon,” Hala, who lashed out at the security services, said.
In a statement, the Lebanese Army urged citizens to cooperate with measures set in place by the military to help facilitate the work of concerned agencies and rescue efforts.
Supporters of the two Salafist preachers, outspoken critics of Hezbollah, were enraged over the incident.
Unidentified gunmen on motorbikes used burning trash cans to block some roads leading to the Salam Mosque and several protesters chanted slogans against Hezbollah and its secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.
Lebanese officials from across the political spectrum called for calm, warning that that the bombing aimed at inciting strife
Caretaker Defense Minister Ghosn warned Friday that car bombs would continue to pose a real threat.
“I warn the Lebanese of the presence of a terrorist scheme to stage car bombings in all regions. We are heading to the fire and everyone must be alert to confront such fire and strife,” Ghosn told the LBCI television channel.
Ghosn also said that the culprits of the Friday attack were the same as those behind the Ruwaiss blast.
The founder of the Salafist movement in Lebanon Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahal accused the Syrian regime of orchestrating the Tripoli bombing, saying the group has begun taking its own security measures.
“It is the Syrian regime who is behind the Tripoli bombing and the bombing in [Beirut’s] southern suburb in order to salvage the Iranian-Syrian project implemented by Hezbollah,” Shahal told a local television station.
“Since the opposition began in Syria, the murderer Bashar Assad and his brother Maher have sought to transform political divisions into a civil war in Syria,” he added.
Noting that targeting mosques was a red line for the movement, Shahal said both the Syrian and Iranian regimes, as well as Hezbollah, should be held responsible for the attacks.
He also said his group has launched independent security measures similar to Hezbollah security measures in its strongholds, following the series of attacks.