A huge car bomb exploded in central Beirut during rush hour, killing eight people, wounding about 80 and raising fears of renewed sectarian violence in a country still scarred from a long civil war.
The explosion did not appear to target any political figure in Lebanon’s divided community but it occurred at a time of heightened tension between Lebanese factions on opposite sides of the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Ambulances rushed to the scene of Friday’s blast in the Achrafiyeh district, a mostly Christian neighbourhood, as smoke rose from the area.
Several cars were set on fire by the explosion and the front of a multistorey building was badly damaged.
Residents ran about in panic looking for relatives while others helped carry the wounded to ambulances.
Security forces were deployed in large numbers in the area.
It ripped through the street where the office of the anti-Damascus Christian Phalange Party is located near Sassine
Phalange leader Sami al-Gemayel, a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a member of parliament, condemned the attack.
“Let the state protect the citizens. We will not accept any procrastination in this matter, we cannot continue like that. We have been warning for a year. Enough,” said Gemayel, whose brother was assassinated in November 2006.
|Ayman Mhana spoke to Al Jazeera from Lebanon
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Sassine Square, the scene of the bombing, said that already there were fears that the bombing meant the Syrian crisis had spilled over into Lebanon.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab envoy peace to Syria “warned two days ago that you cannot expect the Syrian crisis to remain within Syrian borders”, she said.
It was not immediately clear if the explosion targeted any political figure in Lebanon’s divided community but it occurred at a time of heightened tension between Lebanese factions on opposite sides of the Syria conflict.
The war in neighbouring Syria has pitted mostly Sunni fighters against President Bashar al-Assad, who is from the
Syria condemned the deadling car bombing, describing it as a cowardly terrorist act, state news agency SANA reported.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi was quoted as saying “these sort of terrorist, cowardly attacks are unjustifiable wherever they occur.”
Ziad Baroud, the former interior minister, told Al Jazeera that it is too soon to tell who is behind the deadly car bombing.
“High ranking officials have not said anything so far, and therefore neither can I. We have no indication whatsoever [of who is behind this]. We know this is a strong and sad message, and we know this could destabilise the whole country,” he said. “People are reacting with fear, and they don’t know what tomorrow may bring. But again, we cannot speculate in such a delicate situation.”
Omar Nashabe, head of the justice and legal affairs department in Al Akhbar newspaper, told Al Jazeera, “This is the definition of a terrorist act, it was a large explosion in a civilian area, those killed were innocent civilians. These are the prerequisites of a terrorist act.”
Regarding who may be behind the bombing, he said: “There are many suspicions, but we will wait for the investigation to be complete.”
Michel Pharaon, a Lebanese politician with the March 14 political alliance told Al Jazeera that March 14 may have been a target of the explosion.
“This is a threat, a message, but it is too soon to discuss the details,” he said. “We have had lately some assassination attempts, which has reminded us of the period between 2005 and 2007, and this terrorist act is also a reminder of what used to happen in Achrafiyeh during these years.”
“Today some parties are trying to use violence again in Lebanon,” Pharaon said.
Nadim Badran, a resident of Achrafiyeh, told Al Jazeera his entire building shook when the explosion occured. “I quickly made my way to the scene of the blast, and I saw glass on the street, people running, people screaming.”
Badran said “This is the first time since i’ve been living here for the last 20 years that I have felt like a sitting target. This is a message to all of us, that we are all targets. It could happen to any of us.”
Regarding the consequences of such an explosion he said, “as Lebanese we have absolutely no faith, no trust, no belief that anyone who did this can be found and brought to justice.”
Balconies were torn off by the force of the blast, windows shattered and cars crushed by falling masonry.
“We heard a powerful explosion. The earth shook under our feet,” said Roland, 19, among a large crowd of army, rescue workers and onlookers.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel was also at the scene of the first car bombing in Beirut since January 25, 2008, when Lebanon’s top anti-terrorism investigator was slain along with three other people.
Relatives of employees at BEMO bank, whose windows were broken, dashed to the area to look for their children.
“Where is Pierre?” one man cried, as a young woman searched for her mother in the rubble.
The most high-profile car bombing since Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war took place on February 14, 2005 when a massive blast killed former premier Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people as his motorcade drove along the waterfront.
However, fighting had broken out this year between supporters and opponents of Assad in the northern city of