A MASSIVE car bomb left 53 people wounded when it ripped through a Beirut stronghold of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group that has been fighting alongside president Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s civil war.
Sectarian tensions in Lebanon have been high following the intervention of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah in support of Mr Assad’s forces fighting a two-year revolt led by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
A group calling itself Brigade 313, which said it was part of the rebel Free Syrian Army, claimed responsibility for the attack in an internet statement, but provided no further details.
Officials said the bomb went off in a car park near a petrol station and the Islamic Co-op, a supermarket usually packed with shoppers.
Residents in the Shiite district of Beir el-Abed blamed Sunni militant supporters of the insurgency against Mr Assad for the attack, while politicians also suspected a sectarian motive.
“This is the work of agents trying to create strife in Lebanon,” said Hezbollah parliamentary deputy Ali Meqdad, speaking at the site of the explosion.
Interior minister Marwan Charbel said the attack was “a criminal act aimed at destabilising the country”.
Syria’s situation has polarised Lebanon, still healing from a civil war of its own which divided the country along sectarian lines of the kind plaguing Syria.
Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims mostly support the rebels in Syria, while Shiites have largely supported Mr Assad, who is part of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Media outlets were prevented from reaching the area of the attack, where Hezbollah gunmen allowed only the group’s Al Manar TV to operate. Images from the scene showed a crater covered by a blue tarpaulin and surrounded by wrecked cars.
Zeinab, 45, whose apartment opposite the blast site had its windows blown out, wept recalling the incident. She said: “I went downstairs to fetch breakfast for my son and then heard the explosion. I want to know he is OK. I want to talk to him.”
Shopping areas would probably have been full yesterday, the day before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins. Most of the casualties were apparently women and children.
The attack is the second strike in Shiite southern Beirut this year. Two rockets struck the area in May and Lebanese security forces have disarmed several rockets near Beirut in recent months as well.
Hajje Alia, 35, said: “We have been expecting explosions in this holy month of Ramadan from the takfiris [Sunni militants] who are trying to stop us from carrying out our jihad [holy war] duties alongside our Syrian brothers, but nothing will stop us, not 1,000 explosions.”
Another woman, Um Ali Jaber, 60, who lives in a building opposite the blast site, said: “We expected the takfiris to carry out an attack against us at the start of Ramadan.”
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has promised that his group will continue fighting for Mr Assad after it spearheaded the recapture of the strategic town of Qusair last month.
Mr Nasrallah said Hezbollah was aware of the cost of military engagement in Syria’s civil war but would not be deflected from its goal. The car park where the bomb went off is a few hundred metres away from what is known as Hezbollah’s “security square”, where many of the party’s officials live and have offices.
Mr Nasrallah received dignitaries there before the 2006 war with Israel. The area was bombed by Israel in that conflict and Mr Nasrallah has gone underground since then, only rarely appearing in public.
Caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati said all Lebanese must come together “to get out of the political and security crisis our country is living through”.
Abu Ali, who lives near the blast scene, was in no mood for reconciliation.
He said: “The scumbags. These terrorists want us to abandon [Mr Nasrallah] but we swear we will love him more, for all our lives. All we own, and our children we pledge to him.”
Yet some Sunnis in Lebanon, many of whom support Syria’s rebels, have expressed growing resentment over what they see as Hezbollah’s unchecked power in the country.