BEIRUT — A car packed with explosives blew up in a Shia Muslim neighborhood today, destroying an eight-story apartment building and damaging a mosque crowded with worshipers. Police said 56 people were killed and more than 180 were wounded.
Police estimated that the bomb contained more than 200 pounds of explosives, and it spread fire and destruction in the densely populated area. Butane gas canisters stored in a nearby apartment blew up in series of explosions after the initial blast, police said.
It was the most destructive bombing in Beirut since the truck bombings of American and French peacekeeping headquarters on Oct. 23, 1983, which killed 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 French soldiers.
No Claim of Responsibility
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bomb, which went off as worshipers gathered for dusk prayers.
A pall of smoke spread over the area. Four apartment buildings caught fire and dozens of cars were set ablaze.
Lebanon's government radio appealed for urgent blood donations and said hospitals in mostly Muslim West Beirut were unable to cope with "this catastrophe."
The radio said the blast in the Ghobeiri neighborhood knocked down an eight-story apartment building and severely damaged the mosque. A nearby movie theater was also damaged.
Militia Control Streets
Militiamen from the radical Shia Muslim Hezbollah, or Party of God, and the Shia Amal militia took control of the streets, firing in the air to clear the way for ambulances rushing victims to five different hospitals.
Militiamen also fired between the feet of reporters and photographers and ordered them away. Film was confiscated from some photographers.
Police said the blast left a crater three yards deep and five yards wide. The street around the explosion site was littered with rubble and the burnt hulks of several automobiles. Militiamen and rescue workers dug through the wreckage of the collapsed building for survivors and entered nearby buildings to remove the injured.
The blast was within 100 yards of the home of Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who is believed to be the leader of the Hezbollah. He has denied any connection with the group, which is thought to be a collection of several radical Shia organizations blamed for attacks on Westerners in Lebanon.
The state radio quoted a spokesman at Fadlallah's home as saying he and his family were not hurt.
Denies Blessing Suicide Drivers
U.S. intelligence sources in Washington have been quoted as saying Fadlallah blessed the suicide drivers who blew up the headquarters of American and French peacekeepers in 1983. He denied the reports.
Police quoted one witness as saying the car had been parked in front of a tire shop by a man who said he would return for it shortly.
A car bombing in the same neighborhood killed five people and injured 44 on Feb. 18.
On Feb. 1, a car bomb exploded in the northern port city of Tripoli outside a mosque that was built by Sheik Said Shaban, leader of the Tawhid, or Islamic Unification Movement.
Twelve people were killed and more than 50 were wounded in that blast.