BEIRUT: A car bomb ripped through Beirut’s southern suburbs, a stronghold of Hezbollah, wounding over 50 people, security sources said Tuesday, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan for some Shiites in Lebanon.
Ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the scene of the blast site – a parking lot belonging to a local cooperative in the residential and commercial Bir Al-Abed – just before noon.
"It happened shortly after I woke up. I was at my desk when I heard a very loud bang and the front window of my shop shattered," Mustafa Harb, whose business faces the parking lot, told The Daily Star.
"I went upstairs and then came down again shortly after to see the entire parking lot on fire," he added.
The explosive, weighing some 40 kilograms, caused extensive material damage in an around the parking lot, where plumes of thick smoke billowed into the sky.
According to military experts, the blast left a crater 2 meters wide and over 2 meters deep. At least 15 vehicles in and around the parking lot were completely destroyed.
Response teams and security forces quickly moved into the area just after 11 a.m. as residents helped in rushing the wounded to safety.
Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil said the total number of wounded stood at 53. He said 41 were discharged from hospital after suffering light injuries and that 12 were still receiving treatment.
Speaking to reporters in the area, Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar said his party was being “targeted politically because it has confronted the U.S.-Israeli project in the region.”
When asked about rumors the blast had targeted a major Hezbollah figure, Ammar said: "I have no information about this, and no Hezbollah figure was wounded. The casualties were all civilians,” he said.
Ammar said Bir Al-Abed had been targeted because it “embraces the resistance [Hezbollah],” adding that the attack “clearly bears the fingerprint of the Israeli enemy and its tools.”
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon described the bombing in the Lebanese capital as a struggle between Sunnis and Shiites.
"There are many explosions in the area. Our borders are calm and that's not a given,” Ya'alon, responding to news of the explosion in Beirut, was quoted by Israel’s Ynetnews.com as saying.
"We see war seeping from Syria to Lebanon, and we follow what happens in Tripoli and Beirut," he said. "This is a struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. We watch but we don't interfere,” he said.
Tuesday’s attack is the second this year to target the southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, following repeated threats of retaliation by Syrian rebels over the Lebanese party’s growing military involvement in Syria.
Four people were wounded in a twin rocket attack in the southern suburb of Shiyah in May. That attack came hours after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah confirmed his group was fighting alongside troops loyal to President Bashar Assad in the Homs town of Qusair.
Tuesday’s explosion was widely condemned.
President Michel Sleiman denounced the attack as a dangerous return to the country's previous instability and urged Lebanese authorities to bring those responsible to justice.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, for his part, said the Bir Al-Abbed attack had aimed at causing massive amounts of death and destruction.
In 1985, a car bomb rocked the mainly Shiite neighborhood, killing over 80 people, in a failed assassination attempt on the late influential Shiite preacher Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.
The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon called for calm while condemning the car bombing.
Judicial sources said the vehicle used in the attack was a stolen four-wheel-drive Nissan. The bomb was detonated remotely, they added.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, accompanied by the country’s police chief, described the blast as an “act of sabotage.”
“This criminal act is designed to sabotage the country and create sectarian strife,” Charbel said after touring the blast scene.
Lebanon has seen more and more security incidents linked to the conflict in war-torn Syria. The small Mediterranean country also hosts over a million Syrian refugees. – Additional reporting by Wassim Mroueh, Kareem Shaheen, Rima Aboulmona and Dana Khraiche.