An explosion ripped through a stronghold of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah on Thursday in a suburb south of the country’s capital. Thick black smoke could be seen rising over nearby buildings, and eyewitnesses said the blast shook the area.
Lebanon’s state-run news agency said 18 people were killed and over 200 wounded in the explosion in the Rweiss district, a Shi’ite region that is one of Hezbollah’s bastions of support. Other reports put the number of dead as high as 20. A similar attack took place nearby in early July but did not cause any deaths.
Lebanese officials said the powerful blast was caused by a car bomb, which they estimated was planted by activists opposed to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
An Associated Press photographer saw at least two bodies and many wounded people at the scene. Lebanese TV showed a raging fire and thick black smoke from the blast, which set ablaze several cars. Dozens of ambulances rushed to the scene of the explosion and fire fighters were seen trying to evacuate residents from burning buildings.
A unknown group calling itself the “Brigade of Aisha, the Mother of the Faithful” claimed responsibility for the attack. “Nasrallah, you and your organization have received a message from us,” a masked man said in a video published by the apparent extremist group. The man went on to accuse Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah of being an “agent of Iran and Israel.”
Mustafa Hussein, who used to represent Hezbollah in the Lebanese parliament, said the explosion had “Zionist fingerprints” and targeted the Shi’ite organization’s leaders. And a Hezbollah TV report described the attack as Israeli aggression. Hezbollah routinely blames Israel, whose destruction it pledges to achieve, for attacks on its personnel and facilities. There was no official response from Israel, and the notion that Israel might have been involved was dismissed by Israeli analysts.
Last month, a car bomb exploded in the same south Beirut suburb, wounding more than 50 people, in an attack that what was widely assumed to be the handiwork of Syrian rebels.
Israel’s Channel 2 news noted that Thursday’s attack exposed a striking vulnerability in the Hezbollah stronghold. It said it was unlikely the attack targeted particular individuals, but was plainly intended to avenge the deaths of rebel fighters in Syria killed by Hezbollah gunmen fighting with President Bashar Assad.
In May, two rockets slammed into Hezbollah’s stronghold in south Beirut, wounding four people. The rockets struck hours after Nasrallah vowed in a speech to help propel Assad to victory in Syria’s civil war. In June, a rocket slammed into the same area, causing no casualties.
The violence raises the specter of Lebanon being pulled into the increasingly sectarian civil war raging next door in Syria.
Sunni-Shi’ite 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 Shi’ite offshoot sect.
Syria-based rebels and militant Islamist groups have threatened to target Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon in retaliation for its increasingly overt role in Syria. 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.
In comments last month about the cost to Hezbollah of its decision to fight with Assad, IDF chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz remarked that “the fire has reached the fringes of Nasrallah’s cloak.”