Dozens killed in Lebanon car bomb attacks
Blasts target two Sunni mosques in northern city of Tripoli
A woman holds a girl’s hand as they walk past one of two mosques hit by explosions in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli yesterday. Photograph: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
Car bombs exploded with catastrophic force outside two Sunni mosques in the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli yesterday as many worshippers were leaving prayers. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds wounded in a major escalation of sectarian violence in a country deeply unsettled by the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
President Michel Suleiman cut short a visit abroad to meet security officials and exhorted them to “deploy their efforts to reveal the perpetrators and the instigators”.
“The Tripoli crime is an additional indicator that the situation in Lebanon has reached a very dangerous level,” according to the country’s prime minister-designate, Tammam Salam.
The blasts hit the Taqwa and Al-Salam mosques, which are on opposite sides of the city, at about 1.38pm. The Lebanese Red Cross said at least 29 people were killed and more than 500 wounded. Reuters said at least 42 people were killed.
The first car bomb hit about 50 yards from the gates of the Taqwa mosque, setting dozens of cars and a nearby building alight and shattering the windows of surrounding buildings.
The blast snapped the trunks of palm trees and left a crater in the street that punctured a water main, flooding the area. On the roof of the mosque’s entryways sat the carcass of a blown- up car that people nearby at the time said was the bomb car, hurtled into the air by the blast.
The second blast near the al- Salam mosque blasted a 6ft- deep hole in the asphalt and shattered the windows of apartments down the block. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the blasts, but the Taqwa mosque was where Sheik Salem al-Rafei, an outspoken Sunni preacher, had inveighed against Hizbullah, the militant Shia group that supports Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. The preacher also had exhorted worshippers to support the Sunni insurgency trying to topple Assad.
It was not clear if the bombings had targeted the preacher.
Denying responsibility, Hizbullah condemned the double bombing. “These two terrorist explosions come as a translation of the criminal plot that seeks to sow the seeds of discord among the Lebanese and drag the country to internal strife under the headline of sectarianism and religious differences,” the group said.
Accusing unnamed foreign forces of backing the attacks, it said such mayhem benefited “the evil regional international plan that wants to break up our region and drown it in oceans of blood and fire”.
The Tripoli bombings came just over a week after a car bomb in a southern suburb of Beirut, in a Hizbullah stronghold, killed at least 27 people and wounded more than 300 others. Video of the scenes broadcast just minutes after yesterday’s attacks showed thick smoke billowing across Tripoli, a Mediterranean port city.
One video clip posted on YouTube showed angry crowds converged outside the smoking Taqwa mosque. A second video clip, apparently from a security camera inside the al-Salam mosque, showed the precise moment of an enormous blast as worshippers were still praying.
Since the uprising started in Syria more than two years ago, fighting in Lebanon has flared sporadically, with Tripoli a tinderbox because of sectarian tensions similar to those across the border.
Recurring street fights pit Sunni Muslims, who support the Syrian uprising, against members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam to which President Assad belongs.
Meanwhile, Israel responded yesterday to a rocket attack on Thursday from southern Lebanon, bombing what military officials described as a “terrorist site” between Beirut and Sidon. Capt Eytan Buchman, a spokesman for the Israel defence forces, said yesterday that the Israeli airforce had made “a successful hit” overnight on a target in Naameh, after four rockets were fired into the country from Lebanon for the first time in nearly two years.
The rocket fire on Thursday set off sirens in western Galilee and raised tensions in the region against the background of the conflict in Syria. – (New York Times service)