BEIRUT: The nightmare of sectarian violence similar to that engulfing Syria and Iraq hung over Lebanon Tuesday after a car bomb exploded in a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs, wounding over 50 people in the worst incident linked to the unrest in Syria since it began.
“What happened today carried more than one message. I fear that this bombing is the beginning of a series of explosions in Lebanon,” a March 8 leader told The Daily Star.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, speaking at the bombing site, said the attack was aimed at “destabilizing the country and inciting Sunni-Shiite strife.”
The powerful explosion that ripped through the bustling commercial and residential neighborhood of Bir al-Abed just before noon wounded at least 53 people and caused massive damage to cars and buildings, security sources said. It came on the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan for some Shiites in Lebanon.
The bombing comes amid spiraling political and sectarian tensions fueled by the civil war in Syria, where Hezbollah fighters have joined President Bashar Assad’s forces against armed rebels seeking to topple the regime.
It also follows Syrian opposition threats to target the capital’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley cities of Hermel and Baalbek in response to Hezbollah’s deep involvement in Syria’s war. Hermel and Baalbek have recently been targeted by salvoes of rockets reportedly fired by rebels.
Caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil said the total number of wounded stood at 54. He said 41 were discharged from hospital after suffering light injuries and that 12 were still receiving treatment.
Ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the scene of the blast site – a parking lot belonging to a local cooperative in Bir al-Abed.
“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.”The explosive, estimated to be around 40 kilograms of TNT, caused extensive material damage in and 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.
Rescue teams and security forces quickly moved into the area just after the 11 a.m. blast, as residents helped in to rush the wounded to safety.
Judicial sources said the vehicle used in the attack was a stolen four-wheel-drive Nissan. The bomb was detonated remotely, they added.
Speaking to reporters at the blast site, Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar said his party was being “targeted politically because it has confronted the U.S.-Israeli project in the region.”He said Bir al-Abed had been chosen because it “embraces the resistance [Hezbollah],” adding that the attack “clearly bears the fingerprint of the Israeli enemy and its tools.”
Tuesday’s blast is one of the biggest in the southern suburbs since Lebanon’s Civil War ended in 1990, and a major breach of a tightly controlled security area.
“It is a large area, heavily populated. No force in the world can protect every area and every street,” Hezbollah MP Ali Mokdad told reporters at the site.
Bir al-Abed, a mainly Shiite neighborhood, has been hit before. In 1985, a car bomb killed over 80 people in a failed assassination attempt against the late influential Shiite preacher Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.
Tuesday’s attack is the second this year to target the southern suburbs following repeated threats of retaliation by Syrian rebels over the party’s growing military involvement in the warring country.
Four people were wounded in a twin rocket attack on Shiyah in May. That attack came hours after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah confirmed his group was fighting alongside Assad’s forces in the Homs town of Qusair. Hezbollah’s participation helped Assad’s forces recapture the rebel-held strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon last month.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon described the bombing as a struggle between Sunnis and Shiites, denying his country has played any role.
Lebanese leaders from across the spectrum condemned the bombing.
President Michel Sleiman denounced the attack as a return to the “black page” of the war, which he said the Lebanese wanted to erase from their memories. He renewed his call for “understanding and dialogue” among the Lebanese.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri blamed Israel for the “terrorist explosion” and accused the Jewish state of trying to incite Sunni-Shiite strife in Lebanon.
“[The blast] requires the highest level of awareness and vigilance in the face of dangers that surround the country and the entire region, especially while facing attempts by the Israeli enemy to push [Lebanon] into strife by organizing terrorist attacks, as happened today,” he said in a statement.
Hariri said the blast should shock Lebanese “to go back to the national consensus on keeping Lebanon away from external conflicts and to avoid slipping into wars that will only inflict further divisions in the country, place national stability at risk and expose Lebanon to the conspiracies of the Israeli enemy.”
U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly called for calm and joined France, Britain, the United Nations and the European Union in condemning the bombing.
“Such cowardly acts of violence aim at destabilizing the country and spreading fear among the population and are completely unacceptable,” U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly said in a statement.
In Brussels, Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said: “This appalling act of violence underlines the need for all Lebanese to maintain their national unity and actively work to preserve peace, safety and stability in Lebanon.” – Additional reporting by Thomas El-Basha and Dana Khraiche