BEIRUT — Lebanese security forces arrested a suspect on Saturday in connection with the devastating double bombing the day before that killed at least 47 people in the northern city of Tripoli, the state news agency said.
The National News Agency identified the suspect as Sheik Ahmad al-Ghareeb, and said police took him into custody at his home in the Miniyeh region outside Tripoli. It said al-Ghareeb, who has ties to a Sunni organization that enjoys good relations with Lebanon’s powerful Shiite Hezbollah militant group, appears in surveillance video at the site of one of the explosions.
The coordinated explosions Friday outside two mosques in Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni city, raised already simmering sectarian tensions in fragile Lebanon, heightening fears the country could be slipping into a cycle of revenge attacks between its Sunni and Shiite communities. For many Lebanese, the bombings also were seen as the latest evidence that Syria’s bloody civil war — with its dark sectarian overtones — is increasingly drawing in its smaller neighbor.
Lebanese police officials said Saturday 47 people were killed and more than 500 wounded in the attack. Some 300 people were still in the hospital a day after the attack, 65 of them in critical condition, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The United States, United Nations, and Arab League strongly condemned the violence and the loss of innocent lives.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda claimed Saturday that Hezbollah, backed by Iran, was behind the bombings in Tripoli. The organization’s North African branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, said via social media that it was “certain” that Hezbollah was behind the “heinous act” in Lebanon. The organization also vowed to retaliate for the attack.
For its part, Iran said the instability in Lebanon plays into the hands of “the Zionists,” aka Israel.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi “strongly condemned” the terror attacks and said “takfiri,” or Sunni Muslim extremists, were trying to sow unrest and create strife between the different communities in Lebanon, Iran’s news agency IRNA reported.
Such actions, he warned, “play into the hands of the Zionists.”
In Tripoli, armed civilians set up checkpoints on Saturday near the two mosques hit in the attacks, while Lebanese security forces patrolled the streets. A team of forensic experts was sifting through the mangled wreckage at the blast sites. Some residents used shovels and brooms to clean up shards of glass and shrapnel that littered the pavement in front of nearby shops.
The explosions were clearly intended to cause maximum civilian casualties as they struck at midday Friday outside the Taqwa and Salam mosques, which are known to be filled with worshippers at that time on the Muslim day of prayer.
Local TV stations aired footage of the frantic first moments following the explosions: bodies scattered beside burning cars, charred victims trapped in smoking vehicles, bloodied casualties emerging from thick, black smoke and people shouting and screaming as they rushed victims away.
While there has been no claim of responsibility for the attacks, many here link them to the civil war next door in Syria, where a Sunni-led insurgency is fighting to oust a regime dominated by President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Hezbollah has openly declared its guerrillas are fighting alongside Assad’s forces against the Syrian rebels, who enjoy both sympathy and support from many in Lebanon’s Sunni community.
Hezbollah’s overt role in the Syrian civil war has sent sectarian tensions soaring in Lebanon, and street clashes have erupted on numerous occasions in recent months. Preachers at both of the mosques targeted Friday are virulent critics of both Hezbollah and Assad.
Recently, small-scale clashes have taken a turn toward Iraq-style car bombings. Just over a week ago, a car bomb targeted an overwhelmingly Shiite district south of Beirut controlled by Hezbollah, killing 27 people.