BEIRUT: Lebanon’s new government stood united in the face of the first security challenge after twin suicide car bombings targeted the Iranian Cultural Center in Beirut Wednesday, killing eight people and wounding 128 others.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the deadly explosions, which occurred mere feet away from an orphanage, describing the attacks as a “raid” against the center in retaliation to Hezbollah and Tehran’s role in the Syrian war.
Wednesday evening, one of the suicide bombers was identified as Nidal al-Mghayer, 22, a Palestinian resident of the south Lebanon village of Bisarieh.
Mghayer’s father Hisham surrendered himself to the Army Intelligence unit in Zahrani when he identified his son after the Lebanese Army published what it dubbed the photo of a “dangerous” fugitive suspected of links to the attacks, a security source said.
As The Daily Star went to press, Mghayer’s parents were getting their DNA tested to check whether it matched the DNA found at the scene of the blasts.
Later, residents of Bisarieh broke into the house of Mghayer and torched two cars belonging to the family, the source said.
Security forces swiftly cordoned off the suspect’s home to avoid further escalation.
Bisarieh, a majority Shiite village, is also populated by a large Palestinian community who mainly work in the agriculture sector. The source said that security forces expressed serious fears of sectarian feelings running out of control as a result of the attacks against Mghayer’s residence.
Eleven children and one supervisor were slightly wounded in the twin blasts, said a statement issued by the Islamic Orphanage, located meters away from the Iranian center.
The children were on the playground when the explosion occurred, a statement from the institution said, adding that the building, which houses some 260 orphans, was severely damaged.
“We were playing tug of war when the explosion happened,” one of the children said.
“May God punish them and not allow them to go to Heaven,” another shouted as he clutched a journalist’s microphone. “Please God!”
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which released a video claiming responsibility, demanded Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria and the release of its prisoners from Lebanese jails.
The group also claimed the Nov. 19 twin suicide attack outside the Iranian Embassy that killed 30 people, including an Iranian diplomat.
The simultaneous bombings, the latest in a spate of attacks linked to the crisis in Syria, came just four days after the formation of a Cabinet of “national interest” by Prime Minister Tammam Salam and three days after Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said his party would continue fighting alongside the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The blasts occurred at 9:25 a.m. during rush hour in Bir Hasan, the commercial and residential neighborhood that is home to the Iranian and Kuwaiti embassies and several television stations.
Ambulances and Civil Defense trucks rushed to the scene of the blast which was powerful enough to be felt several kilometers away.
The twin attack killed eight people, including a soldier and the two suicide bombers, the source told The Daily Star, adding that several wounded were in critical condition.
The Tawhid Party, headed by Wiam Wahhab, said one of the victims of the blasts was a member of the party identified as 56-year-old Hamza Sobh.
Al-Manar Television reported that the soldier Mohammad Dandash grew suspicious of one of the bombers inside the vehicle and stopped him. The bomber then blew up the car.
The Army urged citizens whose relatives went missing in the attack to head to Al-Rasoul Al-Aazam Hospital to undergo DNA tests in order to identify human remains found on the site.
The military said the “simultaneous attacks” were caused by two vehicles that exploded seconds apart: A Mercedes exploded outside the Iranian Cultural Center while a BMW blew up near the European exhibition center.
“The Military Police unit as well as a number of experts began investigating the site of the explosion and human remains found near the attack site,” the Army said in a statement.
A picture released by the Internal Security Forces showed plumes of smoke rising from the scene of the explosion at almost equal altitude, suggesting the attacks happened at almost at the same time.
In a separate statement, the Army reported that the Mercedes had a fake license plate and contained 75 kilograms of explosives and mortar bombs distributed in the car. The second vehicle, the BMW X5, contained 90 kilograms of mortar bombs placed in the SUV, which was stolen from Beirut’s southern suburbs on the airport road last year.
The Army added that the BMW was originally registered under the name of Mohammad Ali Issa and was later sold to Mustafa Ismail.
A number of buildings and vehicles were damaged and human remains were seen scattered at the site of the attack.
“I was walking near the Kuwaiti Embassy and I heard what sounded and felt like an earthquake or a volcanic explosion,” Ahmad Touli, a local resident, told The Daily Star.
“I immediately rushed to check on my sister who works nearby,” he said as he tried to stop the blood flowing out of a wound in his foot caused by broken shards of glass on the street.
An 18-year-old living with his family in one of the damaged buildings near the explosion said he woke up to a “massive” sound. “My family were terrified. I went downstairs to see what happened,” he said.
Newly appointed Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk expressed his condolences to the families of the victims and said Lebanese authorities should crack down on stolen vehicles in Lebanon.
“There are Lebanese passageways sending stolen vehicles to Syria where they are being rigged with explosives,” Machnouk told reporters at the site.
“We should crack down in areas like the Bekaa Valley and others where thieves live and where stolen vehicles are taken,” he added.
Machnouk also said that some Lebanese were facilitating the work of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.
The Iranian Embassy in Beirut said there were no serious injuries among its staff at the cultural center.
“Only a few employees suffered minor injuries from broken glass,” an embassy spokesman said.
Lebanon has recently been rocked by a series of bombings mostly targeting predominantly-Shiite neighborhoods in the capital’s suburbs, as well as the east of the country.
Radical groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda have claimed responsibility for the explosions, saying the attacks came in retaliation to Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria.
Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah stood defiant Sunday, saying his group would continue fighting “takfiri forces” in Syria and would only withdraw if Arab countries stop meddling in the war-torn country.
Speaking at the scene of the attack, Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar said the party would not be deterred from fighting in Syria and said the perpetrators of the attack were in league with Israel.
The attack was condemned by local and international figures.
“We got the message, and we will respond by uniting [our ranks], adhering to civil peace and rallying around the Army and security forces that have received orders to arrest the perpetrators and bring them to justice quickly,” Prime Minister Salam said after the bombing.
“We stress more than ever before the importance of unity among the Lebanese in the face of terrorism and all suspicious attempts to ignite [sectarian] strife and torpedo efforts to safeguard stability,” former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said in a statement.
In a tweet, the U.S. Embassy condemned the “terrorist” bombings in Bir Hasan and offered condolences to the victims and their families.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned the attack, saying she was “deeply concerned regarding the spiral of violence in Lebanon” and reaffirming that “terrorism and any use of violence against civilians – and especially children – are completely unacceptable.”
A security source said that authorities were still collecting evidence from the scene Wednesday night and questioning witnesses who were in the vicinity of explosion.
The source said that investigators were still looking into the origin of the cars, which they believe were stolen and resold, as well as the explosives that were planted in them. – Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari and Rima Aboulmona