Death toll rises to 42 in Lebanon car bomb attacks

Death toll rises to 42 in Lebanon car bomb attacks

BEIRUT - Agence France-Presse
Death toll rises to 42 in Lebanon car bomb attacks

Smoke is seen above people gathering outside a mosque on the site of a powerful explosion in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on August 23, 2013. AFP Photo

Powerful car bombs exploded Aug. 23 outside two Sunni mosques in a Lebanese city riven by strife over the war in neighbouring Syria, killing 42 people and wounding hundreds, an official said. That was the highest toll in an attack since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Coming a week after a bombing in the Beirut bastion of Shiite party Hezbollah, a close ally of Bashar al-Assad, the bombings in the northern port of Tripoli risk further stoking tensions between supporters and foes of the Syrian president. "The death toll has risen to 42," a security source told AFP.

Earlier, the Lebanese Red Cross earlier said there were also at least 500 wounded, with director Georges Kettaneh adding that many of those hurt had serious burns and head wounds.

Both blasts hit at the hour of weekly Muslim prayers, in a city where Sunni supporters of Syria's rebels engage in frequent, often deadly, clashes with Alawites, who back the Assad regime.

The first bomb struck in the city centre at the Al-Salam mosque as worshippers were still inside. Local television showed images from a CCTV camera of people sitting on the floor listening to a talk as cars drove past outside, when the explosion hit and the worshippers scattered in panic.

The second explosion struck outside Al-Taqwa mosque, about two kilometres (a little more than a mile) away, near the port.  An AFP reporter saw a number of charred bodies near Al-Taqwa and the bodies of five children brought out of it.

Hezbollah links bombing to Beirut attack

As huge clouds of black smoke billowed into the air, television channels aired footage of the dead, of buildings with their fronts blown in and vehicles ablaze.

People rushed to help the wounded, as others hysterically sought their loved ones. Hundreds of furious people gathered outside the Al-Taqwa mosque shouting curses at Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

The powerful Shiite movement, whose militia have been fighting for months alongside al-Assad's troops, linked the Tripoli attacks to the one in Beirut on August 15, which killed 22 people and injured more than 300. It said they were part of a plan to "plunge Lebanon into chaos and destruction".

Former premier Saad Hariri, a Sunni and Hezbollah opponent, said the "authors of dissension do not want Lebanon to live in peace for one minute; they want the killing machine to mow down the lives of innocents across Lebanon".

Hariri's father and former billionaire prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated in a 2005 car bombing in Beirut that also killed another 22 people which, until Aug. 23, was the worst attack since the civil war.

In Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi condemned this "cowardly terrorist attack on our brothers in Tripoli." In London, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt condemned what he called the "abhorrent attacks" and urged unity.

"I appeal to all the people of Lebanon to pull together, to resist attempts to divide, and to renounce this attack and focus on securing a prosperous future free from the threat of violence," he said.

'Total war'

On Aug. 21, army chief General Jean Kahwaji said his forces were fighting a "total war" against terrorism whose aim is "to provoke sectarian strife" in the country.

The army had been pursuing a "terrorist cell that prepares car bombs and sends them to residential neighbourhoods," he said, adding that this action aimed at provoking sectarian strife.

A Lebanese and two Palestinians suspected of preparing a car bomb attack were arrested days after the latest blast in Beirut, the General Security agency said.

They were accused of planning to rig a car with 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of explosives in the Naameh area, south of Beirut, the agency added. Tripoli has seen frequent Syria-related violence over the past two years, including waves of deadly clashes.

Lebanon is officially neutral in Syria's conflict, but the country is deeply divided.

The attacks came hours after Israeli warplanes struck a Palestinian group's camp in Lebanon. Earlier, a different organisation said it had fired four rockets at the Jewish state from Lebanon on Aug. 22.