A powerful car bomb exploded Thursday evening in the densely packed southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, killing between 8 and 20 people according to early estimates and wounding at least 120 people. If the death toll rises as expected, it would be the deadliest single bombing in Lebanon since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
The deadly attack, which was claimed by a previously unknown – and possibly Syrian – group, is likely to further strain ties between Sunnis and Shiites as the effects of neighboring Syria's devastating civil war continue to seep across the border into Lebanon.
The blast, which was heard across Beirut, set alight vehicles and adjacent apartment blocks, trapping residents. Bursts of gunfire were heard as furious Hezbollah fighters attempted to prevent onlookers from drawing too close.
A dense plume of smoke rose into the clear evening sky as ambulances and fire engines, sirens wailing, raced through the city’s narrow streets.
Hezbollah militants moved quickly to seal off the area, blocking off streets with cars, motorcycles, and steel fencing. Some militants held rifles discreetly masked by long holsters. Initial estimates placed the size of the bomb at between 60 to 80 kilograms (132 to 176 pounds). Hezbollah's Al-Manar television said that body parts found on the scene could suggest the bomb was detonated by a suicide bomber.
The orange glow of flames could be seen through the smoke and evening’s darkness. Curtains of black smoke billowed from the first three floors of a seven-story building. A man wielding a fire engine's hose washed blood from a plastic orange stretcher held by a medic. A Syrian man, wide-eyed with apprehension, was bundled away by several Hezbollah men, apparently detained on suspicion of involvement in the bombing. A woman pleaded with Hezbollah men blocking the road to let her through.
“My home is up there,” the distraught women says, pointing at the screen of smoke ahead. A Hezbollah man quickly searched her handbag and then waved her through.
“The blast was huge. I felt in my body,” says a shaken worker at the Farooj restaurant, 200 yards from the blast. “I immediately knew it was an explosion.”
A videotaped claim of responsibility was made by a previously unknown group calling itself the Brigades of Aisha Umm al-Moemeneen. A masked spokesman speaking in a Syrian accent vowed more attacks and advised Syrians to leave Hezbollah areas of Lebanon.
Hezbollah and residents of southern Beirut have been bracing for such an attack for months. A smaller bomb exploded in the southern suburbs last month, wounding 52 people.
Hezbollah is playing a key military role in Syria's civil war, dispatching thousands of battle-hardened fighters to assist the regime of Bashar al-Assad in crushing rebel forces. Hezbollah's intervention has enraged the mainly Sunni opposition and spurred threats of revenge. Shiite-populated areas of the northern Bekaa Valley have been struck by rockets fired by Syrian rebels from across the border. In May, rockets fired from the mountains south of Beirut struck the southern suburbs of the city.
Security in the central part of the southern suburbs, home to Hezbollah's leadership and offices, has grown ever tighter. At night, Hezbollah militants set up checkpoints and sweep streets with bomb-sniffing dogs. A census has been conducted of all Syrians living in the suburbs, with details such as place of residence, employment, and address in Syria being taken down.
More recently, Hezbollah men have been spotted carrying weapons during daytime, an unusual display of force. Hours before the explosion, Hezbollah men were easily visible monitoring key junctions, identifiable by their walkie-talkies and some of them wearing bright green armbands.