BEIRUT – A powerful car bomb tore through a bustling south Beirut neighborhood that is a stronghold of Hezbollah on Thursday, killing at least 18 and trapping dozens of others in an inferno of burning cars and buildings in the bloodiest attack yet on Lebanese civilians linked to Syria’s civil war.
The blast is the second in just over a month to hit one of the Shiite militant group’s bastions of support in years, and the deadliest in decades. It raises the specter of a sharply divided Lebanon being pulled further into the conflict next door, which is being fought on increasingly sectarian lines pitting Sunnis against Shiites.
Syria-based Sunni rebels and militant Islamist groups fighting to topple Syria’s President Bashar Assad have threatened to target Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon in retaliation for intervening on behalf of his regime.
Thursday’s explosion ripped through a crowded, overwhelmingly Shiite area tightly controlled by Hezbollah, turning streets lined with vegetable markets, bakeries and shops into scenes of destruction and burning cars.
Dozens of ambulances rushed to the scene of the explosion and firefighters used cranes and ladders in trying to evacuate dozens of residents from burning buildings. Some residents fled to the rooftops of buildings and civil defense workers were struggling to bring them down to safety hours after the explosion.
The blast appeared to be an attempt to sow fear among the group’s civilian supporters and did not target any known Hezbollah facility or personality.
Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV and Red Cross official George Kattaneh said the death toll was at least 18 and said more than 280 were wounded.
The army, in a statement, said the explosion was caused by a car bomb. It called on residents to cooperate with security forces trying to evacuate people trapped in their homes.
Syria’s conflict has spilled across the border into its neighbor on multiple occasions in the past two years.
But direct attacks against civilian targets were rare until Hezbollah stepped up its role in Syria. Since then, its support bases in southern Beirut have been targeted.
But Thursday’s explosion was much deadlier than those, the bloodiest single attack in south Beirut since a 1985 truck bomb assassination attempt targeting top Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in Beir al-Abed left 80 people dead.
It came despite rigorous security measure taken by Hezbollah around its strongholds, setting up checkpoints, searching cars and using sniffer dogs to search for bombs. It also came a day before Hezbollah leader’s was scheduled to give a speech marking the end of the monthlong 2006 war with Israel.
The explosion occurred on a commercial and residential main street in the Rweiss district, about 100 yards away from the Sayyed al-Shuhada complex where Hezbollah usually holds rallies.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who has lived in hiding since his group’s 2006 monthlong war with Israel, made a rare public appearance at the complex on Aug. 2, where he addressed hundreds of supporters. He was to speak again today from a location in southern Lebanon, but his speeches by satellite are often transmitted to followers at the complex.
Panicked Hezbollah fighters fired in the air to clear the area and roughed up photographers, smashing and confiscating some of their cameras following the explosion.