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Massive explosion in Beirut rocks Hezbollah stronghold

July 09, 2013|By Nabih Bulos and Patrick J. McDonnell

BEIRUT -- A huge explosion rocked southern Beirut early Tuesday in the latest apparent instance of violence from the war in neighboring Syria spilling over into Lebanon.

Some media outlets reported at least one dead and more than a dozen people injured, but there was no immediate independent confirmation of the casualty toll.

Material damage appeared extensive. Numerous vehicles were set ablaze, windows were blown out in nearby apartment buildings and in shops and other structures as far as two blocks away in a densely populated district.

A car bomb placed in a parking lot appeared to be the cause of the blast, according to witnesses at the scene.

The explosion, which came as Muslims were preparing for the Ramadan fasting period, struck the mostly Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Beir al-Abed. The area is a stronghold of Hezbollah, a dominant political and paramilitary force in Lebanon.

Hezbollah militiamen have been fighting in neighboring Syria on the side of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government is facing a more than two-year rebellion from mostly Sunni rebels. Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has enraged many anti-Assad Sunni activists, some of whom have vowed to take the fight to Hezbollah’s Lebanese homeland.

Whether Tuesday's explosion was a result of that threat was not immediately clear, and there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast.

Video from the scene of Tuesday’s blast showed burning vehicles and columns of dark smoke emanating from the area.

At least 18 were “slightly wounded” in the attack, said Al Manar, Hezbollah’s news agency. The outlet did not immediately report any deaths.

Lebanese military units and Hezbollah militiamen converged on the chaotic site as firefighters and volunteers struggled to douse burning vehicles.

“We will not surrender to this,” said one Hezbollah official at the scene, who blamed U.S., Israeli and “some Arab forces” for the apparent attack. “We will remain strong in the face of this.”

Hezbollah, a major political force in the Lebanese government, fought a 2006 war with Israel and is listed as a terrorist group by the United States. Hezbollah rejects the terrorist label and calls itself a “resistance” organization opposed to Israeli and U.S. “aggression” in the region.

A Lebanese soldier at the scene said he was about 100 yards away when the blast struck. “If I had been any closer, I would have been ripped to pieces,” said the soldier, who declined to give his name for security reasons.

Tuesday’s explosion appears to be the second attack in recent months targeting Hezbollah strongholds in the southern expanses of the Lebanese capital.

In May, a pair of rockets landed in another Hezbollah residential bastion in south Beirut, injuring several area workers.

Sectarian-fueled spillover violence from the Syrian war has been on the rise in Lebanon, where the various sects have maintained a fragile peace since the nation’s bloody, 15-year civil war ended in 1990. Many officials and observers have voiced fears that the Syrian war could destabilize Lebanon, plunging the nation into open warfare. Various Lebanese political leaders have called for calm and have warned against sectarian bloodletting.

Last month, 18 Lebanese soldiers were among dozens killed near the southern Lebanese city of Sidon when the Lebanese military clashed with armed followers of a hard-line Sunni preacher who has backed the rebel cause in Syria.

The preacher, Ahmad al-Assir, and his followers were enraged at Hezbollah’s intervention on the side of Assad. The preacher escaped along with many of his acolytes and remains at large, authorities said.

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Bulos is a special correspondent. Correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut contributed to this report.

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