BEIRUT — A bomb exploded Friday on a crowded street in the southern outskirts of Beirut, killing at least 62 people and wounding 200.
The casualty figures, rising all day and evening Friday, could well go higher as victims are discovered in the rubble.
The blast, believed to have been caused by a remote-controlled bomb planted in a parked car, collapsed an apartment building and heavily damaged several other structures in the densely populated Shia Muslim neighborhood known as Beir al-Abed, part of the district of Ghbaire.
Scores of Bombings
Although Beirut has been the scene of scores of car bombings in recent months, the blast Friday was the most lethal since a suicide bomber crashed a truck loaded with explosives into a barracks housing U.S. servicemen at Beirut airport in October, 1983, killing 241 Americans. Another blast the same day took the lives of 58 French paratroopers.
As usual in the Lebanese capital, the motive for Friday's bombing was murky. But the scene of the blast was just yards from the home and office of Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a prominent Shia Muslim cleric who is close to Iran and who is a spiritual adviser to the fundamentalist Shia Muslim group Hezbollah (Party of God).
Lebanese state radio reported shortly after the explosion that Fadlallah had not been hurt, but there were other reports that members of his family and six bodyguards were injured.
200 Pounds of Explosives
The bomb contained a reported 200 pounds of explosives, and residents of the area said the blast also set off explosions among propane gas cylinders stored nearby.
The blast left a deep hole in the street and littered a wide area with debris. Rescue workers had to pry survivors from the concrete wreckage of the collapsed building.
Beir al-Abed is one of the poor, predominantly Shia Muslim southern suburbs of Beirut, which have become crowded with refugees as a result of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
At the hour of the explosion, around 5 p.m., the streets were packed with shoppers and workers making their way home.
For several hours after the explosion, cars and trucks raced from the area to hospitals in the Beirut area carrying the wounded. Gunmen hung from the doors firing their rifles into the air to clear the way through the heavy traffic.
Bodies were piled into the backs of pickup trucks and ambulances to be taken to the morgues.
State radio broadcast emergency appeals for blood donations, saying that hospitals were unable to cope with the disaster.
In an unrelated incident Friday reported by United Press International, Syrian intervention stopped heavy fighting between Druze militiamen and Christian-led army troops in the hills outside the capital, according to government sources. There were no reports of casualties.
The southern Beirut explosion followed a clash Thursday between Lebanese army troops and Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, and there were immediate charges that Israel was responsible for the bombing--just as the Israelis have been accused of being behind other explosions in recent days.
'Work of Israel'
Spokesmen for Druze and Shia Muslim organizations charged that it was "the work of Israel," and state television broadcasters said the bombing was connected to the "plot being carried out against (Israeli-occupied) south Lebanon."
The broadcast went on to say that it was "a massacre aimed at scuttling the resistance of our people and their perseverance in refusing to capitulate."
Fadlallah accused Israel and its "internal allies" of being behind the explosion. He warned "all those who are playing with fire . . . that their hands will be burned by the flames."
However, neither Fadlallah nor the main-line Shia groups produced any immediate proof to support their charges.
In launching their withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Israeli forces have encountered toughening armed Shia Muslim resistance and have, in turn, launched an "iron fist" policy, in the words of Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Denials From Israelis
Since mid-February, roughly half a dozen blasts have taken place in Shia areas, most or all of them attributed by local residents to Israel. In each case, the Israelis have denied involvement.
On Friday in Israel, Deputy Prime Minister David Levy, speaking at the funeral of a soldier killed in Thursday's clash, was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that Lebanon is a land "gripped by madness," where bloodletting occurs daily.
A resident of Friday's targeted apartment building who also works there as a guard expressed sadness and weary disbelief.
"In one of the apartments they were having a kid's birthday party," he said. "They and their mothers were all hurt, some very badly. Just kids. Kids!"