The blasts, which came eight days after a similar car bomb attack against a Shiite-populated area of southern Beirut that left 30 dead, have strengthened fears among Lebanese that the country is sliding into Iraq-style sectarian conflict.
The first car bomb exploded outside the Taqwa mosque during a sermon by Sheikh Salem al-Rifai, a Salafist cleric known for his outspoken support for the Syrian rebels. The second bomb exploded five minutes later outside the Salam mosque where Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, another notable anti-Syrian regime Salafi cleric, was preaching. Television images showed cars on fire and thick clouds of black smoke rising above Tripoli’s skyline as bystanders helped ferry casualties away from the scene.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks.
Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister since the resignation of the government in March, said the bombings in his home city were a “clear attempt to create strife."
Gunfire echoed across the city after the bomb blasts and armed men were seen on the streets. Enraged followers of the two clerics attempted to block streets with trash bins and chanted slogans against the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Political figures urged restraint, fearing that the bombings will trigger factional fighting.
Hezbollah denounced the bombings and warned of “international designs” to drown the region in “blood and fire."
“These twin terrorist bombings are part of a criminal plan aiming to plant the seeds of strife between Lebanese and drag them into fighting under the banner of confessionalism and sectarianism,” Hezbollah said in a statement.
Tripoli is regularly rocked by clashes between rival gunmen from Sunni and Alawite factions, which have left dozens dead over the past year. But the car bomb attacks herald an ominous escalation in the seething tensions in Lebanon due to bitter differences over the war in neighboring Syria.
Hezbollah has dispatched thousands of battle-hardened fighters into Syria to help defend the Assad regime against rebel groups. But Lebanese Sunnis overwhelmingly support the Syrian opposition and some have joined rebel groups or support them on a logistical basis from Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has triggered a spate of cross-border rocket fire from Syrian rebels against Shiite-populated areas of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and roadside bomb attacks against suspected Hezbollah vehicles. On Aug. 14, a large car bomb exploded in the Hezbollah-stronghold of Rweiss in southern Beirut, killing 30 people in what was the deadliest single bomb attack since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.
A Syrian opposition group claimed responsibility for that attack in a video-taped statement.
Hezbollah has imposed a security blanket over the southern suburbs of Beirut, home to its leadership. Last weekend, a vehicle containing 550 pounds of explosives was discovered in Naameh, nine miles south of Beirut. Three men were arrested in connection with the vehicle and reportedly confessed that they planned to explode it in Shiite-populated areas.