BEIRUT: Lebanon slid into further turmoil Tuesday, facing the threat of Iraq-style sectarian violence, after two suicide bombers – one driving a rigged car and the other on a motorcycle with an explosives belt – attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
Twenty-five people were killed, including an Iranian diplomat, and more than 150 wounded, security sources said.
World leaders condemned the bombings and called for restraint to prevent tensions from escalating in Lebanon, which is already reeling under the repercussions of the conflict in Syria.
The twin bombings, the first of its kind to target an embassy since the 1975-90 Civil War, showed how quickly Lebanon has been pulled into the Syrian war and the grave consequences for the country’s fragile security and stability.
The bombings, which have sent shockwaves across Lebanon and heightened fears of Syria-related sectarian violence, came a few days after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah vowed to keep the party’s fighters in Syria battling alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces against armed rebel groups.
The attack, confirmed by Lebanon’s military prosecutor as the work of suicide bombers, was claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Lebanon-based Al-Qaeda-linked group, which threatened further attacks unless Hezbollah withdraws its fighters from Syria.
“The Abdullah Azzam Brigades – the Hussein bin Ali cells – ... are behind the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut,” Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, the group’s religious guide, said on his Twitter feed.
“It is a twin suicide operation by two heroes from the Sunni community in Lebanon,” he added, warning that the group would carry out further attacks until Hezbollah withdraws its fighters from Syria and Islamist detainees in Lebanon are released.
A high-level security source said CCTV footage showed the first suicide bomber detonating his explosives belt at the embassy’s entrance just before 10 a.m. after approaching the compound on a motorcycle.
An embassy guard had shot at the man as he rushed toward the embassy, the source said, adding that the bomber’s belt had contained 5 kilograms of explosives material.
Minutes later, a second explosion shook the upscale predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Bir Hasan when another bomber detonated an explosives-laden sports utility vehicle less than 50 meters from the embassy compound, the source said.
The vehicle – a Trailblazer – was rigged with 60 kilograms of explosives, the source added.
The embassy’s sturdy metal gate was twisted by the explosions, but its well-fortified compound sustained only minor damage.
The Lebanese Army said 5 kilograms of explosives were used in the first blast and that the second vehicle – a darkish-gray, four-wheel-drive – was rigged with “approximately 50 kilograms” of explosives.
“Investigations are ongoing to identify the suicide bombers and where the motorcycle and car used in the terrorist operations originated from,” the military said in a statement.
Among the 25 victims was Sheikh Ibrahim Ansari, the embassy’s cultural attaché, and an Iranian civilian, the security sources said.
Radwan Fares, 45, a Lebanese national who headed the embassy’s security, was also killed. Fares was with Ansari at the time of the incident, the sources said, adding that the two were headed to a meeting with caretaker Cultural Minister Gaby Layyoun.
In addition to Ansari and Fares, the Iranian Embassy said three other security men were killed in the bombings.Speaking hours after the explosions, Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Roknabadi said his embassy was the target of a “terrorist attack” and blamed Israel, Iran’s long-time foe.
Tehran also blamed Israel.
“[The bombings are] an inhuman crime and spiteful act done by Zionists and their mercenaries,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in remarks carried by the official IRNA news agency.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Roknabadi to inquire about the embassy’s staff and expressed solidarity with the Lebanese people. He also called for uncovering those involved in the bombings.
The area around the embassy was littered with debris as firefighters fought to put out the flames from burning vehicles parked on the road adjacent to the embassy compound.
At least six bodies lay on the street leading to the compound as thick plumes of black smoke filled the sky over the Beirut neighborhood.
“I was waiting at the traffic sign on the street parallel to the Iranian Embassy when I heard a loud explosion,” said a motorist, who refused to be identified.
Mohammad, who was at his friend’s apartment nearby at the time of the explosion, expressed shock. “We came out and it was just bizarre. It was like watching a movie, I swear. The first time I’ve seen something like this with my own eyes ... dead people on the ground ... Bir Hasan was known to be the safest area in Beirut, and now it’s in pieces,” he said.
The explosions set a number of cars ablaze and scattered victims’ bodies across the neighborhood. Power posts were damaged and devastated screaming people scrambled to leave the area.
Ambulances and firefighting trucks rushed to the scene, their sirens blaring, as personnel collected the bodies of the victims, some caked with blood, and provided aid to the survivors. Human limbs were scattered around the explosion site.
Lebanese troops along with Hezbollah members, several dressed in black and carrying machine guns, blocked the roads leading to the site and barred some journalists from entering.
Speaking at the site of the bombing, senior Hezbollah official Mahmoud Qomati said the attacks were “a message of blood and death” to Iran and Hezbollah for standing by Syria, vowing they would not change their position.
The bombings drew worldwide condemnation with calls for restraint to avoid inflaming tensions in Lebanon further.
While condemning the bombings, the United States said it was too soon to say who was responsible for the attack.
“We call on all parties to exercise calm and restraint to avoid inflaming the situation further,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a briefing in Washington. “Acts of terror only reinforce our determination to work with the institutions of the Lebanese state.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned what he called the “senseless and despicable” bomb attacks against the Iranian Embassy.
“The United States knows too well the cost of terrorism directed at our own diplomats around the world, and our hearts go out to the Iranian people after this violent and unjustifiable attack,” Kerry said in a statement.
Moscow deplored the “bloody attack” targeting a “diplomatic mission” in Beirut and called for punishing those responsible for fomenting violence in the volatile region, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“The incident again underscores the need to stop those who, via a series of bloody attacks in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, seek to rekindle hatred between faiths, which is disastrous for the region and its people,” the statement said.
The bombings were among the deadliest in a string of attacks that have targeted Hezbollah’s strongholds in Beirut’s southern suburbs in recent months in a campaign of retaliation by extremist groups over the party’s support for Assad.
Previous large-scale attacks targeting Hezbollah strongholds include an Aug. 15 car bombing in the Ruwaiss neighborhood that killed 30 people and wounded more than 300. A less powerful car bomb targeted the Bir al-Abed neighborhood on July 9, wounding more than 50 people.
The two attacks in the southern suburbs, along with deadly twin car bombings in the northern city of Tripoli on Aug. 23 that left 47 people dead and over 500 wounded, were widely linked to the war in Syria.
Nasrallah has accused takfiri groups of being behind the bombings in the southern suburbs and vowed to continue the military campaign in Syria as long as it was necessary. – Additional reporting by Wassim Mroueh