Lebanese president: Beirut bombing 'bore fingerprints of Israel'
Powerful car bomb rips through Hezbollah stronghold, killing 22 • Sunni group claims responsibility and threatens Nasrallah directly, calling him an "agent of Israel" • Ya'alon shows U.N. chief map of Hezbollah arms caches in south Lebanese villages.
News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
The site of the car bomb explosion in the Dahiya neighborhood of southern Beirut, Thursday
Photo credit: AP
Smoke rises from the site of the explosion on Thursday
Photo credit: AP
The Dahiya neighborhood after the explosion on Thursday
Photo credit: AP
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman: The attack "bore the fingerprints of terrorism and Israel"
Photo credit: AP
A powerful car bomb tore through a bustling Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut on Thursday, killing 22 people 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.
Many Lebanese officials, including President Michel Suleiman, pointed accusatory fingers at Israel following the attack.
As of press time, Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said hospitals across the capital had taken in 16 bodies and 226 wounded people. Hezbollah's Al Manar TV and Red Cross official George Kattaneh said the death toll was at least 18, and more than 280 had been wounded.
The blast is the second in just over a month to hit one of the Shiite terrorist group's bastions of support, 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 in the conflict.
Thursday's explosion ripped through a crowded, overwhelmingly Shiite area tightly controlled by Hezbollah, turning streets lined with vegetable markets, bakeries and shops into a scene of destruction.
Dozens of ambulances rushed to the site of the explosion and firefighters used cranes and ladders to try to evacuate terrified residents from burning buildings. Some fled to the rooftops of buildings and civil defense workers were still struggling to bring them down to safety several 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 figure.
The army, in a statement, said the explosion had been caused by a car bomb. It called on residents to cooperate with security forces trying to evacuate people trapped in their homes.
A previously unknown group calling itself Aisha -- the Mother of Believers Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack in a video posted on YouTube, saying it was the second "message" it had sent since a blast in the area last month. The authenticity of the claim could not be independently verified.
"Our second message was strong and astounding," a masked man, flanked by two other armed and masked men, read from a prepared statement in the video. He called on civilians to stay away from Hezbollah strongholds in the future, saying the terrorist group was "an agent for Iran and Israel."
"This is the second time that we decide the time and place of the battle ... and you will see more, God willing," the statement said.
Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Ammar called the blast a "terrorist" attack and called for restraint among the group's supporters. He suggested the group's political rivals in Lebanon were responsible for creating an atmosphere that encourages such attacks.
But many still blamed Israel.
"The explosion was carefully prepared and one of the theories is that it could have been an Israeli retaliation for the Labouneh operation," Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said, referring to an incident last week in which four Israeli soldiers were wounded in southern Lebanon.
Suleiman said the attack "bore the fingerprints of terrorism and Israel, intended to undermine the stability of the strong Lebanese people."
Following a meeting with visiting U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem on Friday, President Shimon Peres commented on Suleiman's allegations, saying that "it surprised me that the president of Lebanon is accusing Israel."
"Why blame Israel?" Peres said. "It is Hezbollah that is amassing bombs and killing people in Syria without the permission of the Lebanese government."
In an interview on Army Radio on Friday morning, former Mossad chief Danny Yatom said, "We've gotten used to accusations of this kind. They should be ignored. There is almost no act in the Middle East that Israel's opponents don't attribute to it. But these are internal matters for these countries. We have enough problems of our own, so it wouldn't be wise to get involved."
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon also met with Ban on Friday, and presented him with a map of south Lebanese villages where Hezbollah stores weapons in civilian residences and from where it launches rockets and assumes battlefield positions. The map marked specific homes used by Hezbollah from where rockets will be launched at Israel in the event of another armed conflict.
"Hezbollah is Iran's primary weapon against Israel if a war breaks out. It is an organization that is a state within a state," Ya'alon told Ban.
"We greatly appreciate the willingness of the U.N. forces on the border with Syria and southern Lebanon. The Middle East is in the midst of a strategic earthquake, and there will be instability in the region for a long time to come. The only stable thing in the Middle East is its lack of stability.
"In Syria we must be ready for a civil war that will last for years. In Lebanon as well there is a struggle developing between Hezbollah and Sunni elements. We see Hezbollah activity near the border with Israel, despite U.N. Resolution 1701 stipulating that Hezbollah cannot be or operate there.
"Hezbollah must not be allowed to be there," Ya'alon said, showing Ban the map. "Hezbollah is Iran's strategic arm in Lebanon ... it must be treated like an enemy."
Syria's conflict has spilled across the border into Lebanon on multiple occasions over the past two years. Fire from Syria has hit border villages, while clashes between Lebanese factions backing different sides have left scores dead.
But direct attacks against civilian targets were rare until Hezbollah stepped up its role in Syria. Since then, the organization's support bases in southern Beirut have been targeted. Since May, rockets have been fired at suburbs controlled by the group on two occasions, wounding four people. On July 9, a car bomb exploded in the nearby Beir al-Abed district, wounding more than 50 people.
Thursday's explosion, however, was much deadlier than the previous attacks, and was 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 killed 80 people.
It came despite rigorous security measure taken over the past few weeks by Hezbollah around its strongholds, setting up checkpoints, searching cars and sometimes using sniffer dogs to search for bombs. It also came a day before Hezbollah's leader was scheduled to give a major speech marking the end of the month-long 2006 war with Israel.
The explosion occurred on a central commercial and residential street in the Rweiss district, about 100 meters (330 feet) away from the Sayyed al-Shuhada complex where Hezbollah usually holds rallies.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who has been in hiding since his group's 2006 month-long 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 on Friday 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.
Sunni-Shiite tensions have risen sharply in Lebanon, particularly since Hezbollah raised its profile by openly fighting alongside Assad's forces. Lebanese Sunnis support the rebels fighting to topple Assad, a member of a Shiite offshoot sect.
The group's fighters played a key role in a recent regime victory in the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border, and Syrian activists say they are now aiding a regime offensive in the besieged city of Homs.
Politicians within Lebanon's Western-backed coalition have slammed the group for its involvement in Syria and called for its disarmament.
The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the terrorist attack, calling it a "heinous act." Council members stressed that terrorism "constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable."
U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly also strongly condemned the bombing. In comments posted on the embassy's Facebook page, Connelly called for all parties to exercise calm and restraint.
The British Foreign Office official in charge of Middle East policy, Alistair Burt, also condemned the attack.
"Terrorism and extremism have no place in Lebanon. I call for the Lebanese state to investigate this urgently and bring the perpetrators to justice," he said in a statement.
Outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati declared Friday a day of mourning for the victims of the attack.