Deadly explosions rock Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut
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Twin suicide bombings rocked a busy shopping street in a Hezbollah stronghold of Beirut Thursday, killing 43 people and wounding more than 200, according to Lebanese officials.
The attack was quickly claimed by the extremist Islamic State group (IS), which is fighting Hezbollah militants in neighbouring Syria and Iraq but has not had a recognised affiliate in Lebanon, though the tiny Mediterranean country has seen deadly spillovers from the civil war next door.
The explosions hit minutes apart during rush hour in an area of southern Beirut called Burj al-Barajneh, but it was not immediately clear how many attackers were involved.
According to a Lebanese security official, the first suicide attacker detonated his explosive vest outside a Shiite mosque, while the second waited for people to rush to the scene to help before blowing himself up inside a nearby bakery.
The Lebanese army said the body of a third would-be suicide bomber was found at the scene of one of the blasts, with his legs blown off, after he apparently failed to blow himself up.
The Al-Mayadeen TV station also reported there was a third would-be bomber, and showed a video of a bearded young man with a belt. The report said he died before he was able to detonate his explosives.
At the scene of the blasts, residents showed reporters what they said were metal pebbles that are usually put inside an explosive belt to inflict maximum casualties.
"They targeted civilians, worshippers, unarmed people, women and elderly, they only targeted innocent people," Hezbollah official Bilal Farhat told AP, calling it a "satanic terrorist attack".
The ministry of health said at least 43 people were killed and 239 wounded in the blasts, which happened at around 6pm local time, according to witnesses.
“This is certainly the largest attack that Beirut has seen in some years,” said FRANCE 24’s Adam Pletts, reporting from the scene of the bombing.
Hospitals in southern Beirut called on people to donate blood and appealed on residents not to gather at hospital gates so that ambulanced and emergency staff could work unhindered.
For more than an hour, ambulances struggled to ferry the wounded and the dead from the neighbourhood while Lebanese troops and Hezbollah gunmen cordoned off the area.
"There is a massacre inside and we will not let you take photos," a Hezbollah member screamed at a reporter at the scene.
Hezbollah called on people to leave all coffee shops in the area, which are usually packed with customers on Thursday evenings, and urged residents to inform the group about any suspicious activities.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the "cowardly criminal act," urging the Lebanese to unite. UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag also denounced the "heinous attack," stressing the need for those responsible to be brought to justice and saying that the international community was standing by Lebanon.
Target of several attacks
The blast was the first to target Beirut's southern suburbs since June 2014, when a suicide car bomb killed a security officer who had tried to stop the bomber.
Between July 2013 and February 2014, there were nine attacks on Hezbollah bastions, most claimed by Sunni extremists.
“This area of Beirut has been the target of attacks in the past given Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict,” said Pletts. “It has made them many enemies in the region, not least those in the opposition in Syria, who have made Hezbollah their target in the past, but nothing on this scale.”
Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters into neighbouring Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad's forces against a Sunni-dominated uprising.
All Lebanon schools, universities declared shut Friday after south Beirut attack: Education Ministry https://t.co/8dmXQTOl1j— The Daily Star (@DailyStarLeb) 12 Novembre 2015
A senior Hezbollah official visiting the scene of the attack told the Hezbollah-owned Al Manar TV station that Shiite fighters would continue fighting “terrorists” in Syria. “It’s a long war between us,” he added.
Among those killed in Thursday's blasts were two staffers of the American University of Beirut, according to a memo circulated to the AUB community. The memo did not give the names of the staffers or other details.
In Iran, which is a key ally of the Lebanese Hezbollah, a statement from the foreign ministry condemned the Beirut blasts and offered condolences to government and people of Lebanon.
In the US, a White House spokesperson said “such acts of terror only reinforce our commitment to support the institutions of the Lebanese state,” while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply saddened” by the news.
Lebanon also hosts more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees equivalent to a quarter of the country's entire population.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)