TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Politicians and religious leaders in Tripoli struggled Friday to respond to twin car bombs that killed at least 45 people and wounded more than 500 in the northern city, differing over whether they should adopt “private security” measures to prevent further acts of violence.
Two car bombs outside mosques during Friday prayers sparked a wave of condemnations, as politicians and officials inside and outside Lebanon denounced attempts to spark civil strife.
The first blast, outside the Al-Taqwa Mosque, was followed around seven minutes later by an explosion outside the Al-Salam Mosque.
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 suburbs of Beirut.
Security sources told The Daily Star that the first blast occurred near the Al-Taqwa Mosque at 1:30 p.m. where Salafist Sheikh Salem Rafei, a staunch opponent of President Bashar Assad and a leading figure in Lebanon’s Salafist movement, was delivering a sermon.
The car bomb on Maarad Street, near the Al-Salam Mosque, occurred minutes later, while an instance of “divine intervention,” according to eyewitnesses, prevented an even higher death toll.
Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, also a Salafist preacher, had finished his sermon but asked worshippers to perform an additional prayer, which kept them inside the building a few minutes longer. Most received light wounds in the blast that followed, unlike passers-by outside the mosque.
Baroudi and Rafei, who were unscathed in the attacks, held emergency meetings later in the day with politicians and religious figures from the northern city to discuss the day’s bloody events.
Sheikh Dai al-Islam Shahhal, a leading Salafist figure, told a local television station that his group had taken a decision to institute “private security” measures as a reaction.
However, a group of religious figures and politicians meeting separately warned that such measures would be counterproductive.
Tripoli MP Mohammad Kabbara, speaking after the meeting, said such an approach would amount to “militia-like” behavior that would “in turn lead to something worse.”
Religious figures, including representatives of the Salafist movement, met to discuss the blasts but had yet to arrive at a unified stance when The Daily Star went to press.
Thick plumes of black smoke blanketed the city’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 ablaze 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 Al-Taqwa Mosque blast site carrying the body of a casualty whose limbs oozed blood.
TV footage showed the charred corpse of a male victim on the ground still clinging to a Lebanese flag. Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said the explosive used outside the Al-Salam Mosque weighed 100 kilograms.
Supporters of the two Salafist preachers, outspoken critics of Hezbollah, were enraged over the incident. Many blamed the blasts on Syria, and said worshippers were preparing to take part in marches to denounce a series of deadly chemical attacks in areas of Greater Damascus earlier in the week.
Gunmen on motorbikes used burning trash cans to block some roads leading to the Salam Mosque and protesters chanted slogans against Hezbollah and its secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.
Officials from across the political spectrum called for calm, warning that the bombings aimed at inciting strife.
President Michel Sleiman described the blasts as a “massacre” and said they were part of a string of violence targeting the entire country.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the attacks were aimed at provoking the residents of Tripoli to taking actions in response.
“Criminal hands targeted the city of Tripoli once again today, in a clear message aiming to incite strife and drive Tripoli and its residents into reactions,” said Mikati, who hails from the city.
In a statement, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam said the explosions showed that politicians should deal with events “with the highest sense of national responsibility.”
According to the statement, upon learning of the twin bombings, the Beirut MP cut short his visit to Greece to return to Lebanon.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said those behind the blast “don’t want the Lebanese to feel stability for one second, because they want the bombing and killing machines to claim as many innocent people as possible in every corner of Lebanon.”
Speaker Nabih Berri said that the perpetrators behind the Tripoli bombings were also the ones who planned the recent car bombing in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Caretaker Defense Minister Ghosn said the culprits were the same ones who were behind the Ruwaiss blast.
The explosions were condemned by French President Francois Hollande, who called them “odious, cowardly attacks,” and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who appealed for restraint and urged Lebanese to “support their state institutions, particularly the security forces, in maintaining calm and order in Tripoli and throughout the country, and in preventing the recurrence of such destructive actions.”