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Middle east

Al Qaeda offshoot claims Beirut bombings

© Screen grab: NBN

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-11-19

The Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital Beirut was the apparent target of two explosions on Tuesday, killing at least 23 people and wounding a further 146. The al Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades has claimed responsibility.

Twin explosions rocked a southern neighbourhood of the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Tuesday near the Iranian Embassy compound, killing at least 23 people and injuring 146, according to Lebanese medical officials.

The blasts occurred in the Bir Hassan area, a stronghold of the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which has been supporting President Bashar al Assad in neighbouring Syria.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 from Beirut, Justin Salhani, a correspondent for The Atlantic Post, said the blasts in a Shiite-dominated, upscale neighbourhood of the Lebaense capital were a major attack.

“There’s large scale destruction, there’s blood on the ground here on the scene. It’s not a pretty sight,” said Salhani, adding that the attack occurred, “outside the Iranian Embassy, which is surrounded by residential buildings, as most embassies are in Beirut. Many of the buildings here have their windows knocked out, you can see water spraying out of buildings and glass all over the ground.”

The al Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the double suicide attacks.

In a Twitter post in Arabic, the group’s spiritual guide Sheikh Sirajeddine Zureiqat, said the “double martyrdom operation” was carried out by “two Sunni heroes of Lebanon”. A later Twitter posting warned that the group will continue its operations in Lebanon until Hezbollah pulls its fighters out of Syria.

Security camera footage showed a man rushing toward the outer wall of the Iranian Embassy before detonating a belt packed with explosives. The second explosion was caused by a car bomb, said Lebanese security officials.

There were conflicting reports about whether the victims of the attack included Iran’s cultural attaché to Lebanon, Sheikh Ebrahim Ansari. Earlier Tuesday, Iran’s ambassador told the Associated Press that Ansari had succumbed to wounds sustained in the bombings.

But in an interview with Iranian state TV later Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Ansari was critically wounded and showing “signs of life”.

Shiite-dominated neighbourhoods of Beirut have been targeted in the past few months with car bombs and rockets in what Syrian rebels say is retaliation for Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Hezbollah fighters in Syria have been supporting forces loyal to Assad, who hails from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Iran, the world’s Shiite powerhouse, has been Hezbollah’s main backer in the Shiite group’s conflict against. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Iran has been supporting the Assad regime and in recent months, there have been credible reports that members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are operating in Syria. Tehran however officially denies the reports.

Iran blames Israel for attack

Syria was among the first countries to react to Tuesday’s attack. “The Syrian government firmly condemns the terrorist attack carried out near the Iranian embassy in Beirut,” said Syrian state TV.

Iran has accused Israel of carrying out the attacks. In a statement posted by the official IRNA news agency, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the bombings were “an inhuman crime and spiteful act done by Zionists and their mercenaries”.

France and Britain have also condemned the attack.

Tuesday’s attack coincides with French President François Hollande's state visit to neighbouring Israel as Tehran prepares to hold another round of nuclear talks in Geneva.

Hollande’s visit comes as the US has been making progress to try to secure a deal to get Iran to halt its bid to build nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. Israel and France have cautioned against rushing into a deal with Iran.

Reporting from Beirut, Salhani said the recent developments on Iran’s diplomatic front could also be a factor in a country that is often seen as a pawn in the geostrategic interests of its neighbours.

“It could also be the fact that Iran is in negotiations with the US. It makes groups that are fighting in Syria on the opposition side feel pushed aside,” said Salhani.

Syrian conflict threatens Lebanon’s delicate communal balance

Tensions have been rising in Lebanon as the brutal Syrian conflict drags into its 32nd month. While the majority of the country’s Sunni population supports the Syrian opposition’s goal to oust Assad, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has vowed not to withdraw his fighters supporting the regime from Syria.

Over the past two years, there have been increasing fears that the conflict in Syria would spill into Lebanon, a country that experienced a bloody, internecine civil war from 1975 to 1990.

“Since the [Lebanese] civil war ended, this country has had a very delicate peace,” explained FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Editor Douglas Herbert. “There’s always a sense of walking on a tripwire and any event – especially a civil war at your doorstep – could be the spark that sets off the tinderbox in Lebanon.”

Date created : 2013-11-19

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