Twin explosions hit two mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday, killing at least 42 people and wounding hundreds, intensifying the sectarian strife that has spilled over from the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
The apparently coordinated blasts – the biggest and deadliest in Tripoli since the end of Lebanon’s own civil war – struck as locals were finishing Friday prayers in the largely Sunni Muslim city. Lebanese officials appealed for calm.
The explosions in Tripoli, 70 km (43 miles) from Beirut came a week after a huge car bomb killed at least 24 people in a part of the capital Beirut that is controlled by the Shi’ite Muslim militant movement Hezbollah.
A recent resurgence of sectarian violence in Lebanon has been stoked by the conflagration in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is fighting a largely Sunni-led rebellion. Both Hezbollah and radical Sunni groups in Lebanon have sent fighters over the border to support opposing sides in Syria.
Medical and security sources said the death toll from Friday’s blasts in Tripoli had risen to 42 by late afternoon. Hundreds more were wounded, they said. Earlier, the Lebanese Red Cross said at least 500 people were hurt.
The first explosion hit the Taqwa mosque, frequented by hardline Sunni Islamists, and killed at least 14 people there, according to accounts earlier in the day.
Further deaths were reported from a second blast outside the al-Salam mosque, which the Interior Ministry said was hit by a car laden with 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of explosives.
A Reuters reporter at the scene said the crater from the blast was about four metres (13 feet) wide and 2.5 metres (8 feet) deep and the floors of the mosque were covered in blood. A 50-metre (165-foot) stretch of the road was charred black and the twisted remains of cars littered the area.
“We were just bowing down to pray for the second time and the bomb went off. The air cleared, and I looked around me and saw bodies,” said Samir Jadool, 39.
Lebanon’s Red Cross said more than 500 people were wounded in the two explosions. Television footage showed people running through the streets, some of them carrying bloodied victims.
Near the Taqwa mosque blast site, angry men toting AK-47 assault rifles took to the streets and fired in the air while other men threw rocks at Lebanese soldiers nearby.
“BEGINNING OF THE STORM”
Video obtained by local news channel LBC showed the moment of the explosion at al-Salam mosque. The blast ripped through a wall of the mosque, showering clouds of dust on people sitting on prayer mats and sending dozens running out of the building.
Lebanese officials called for calm as tensions rose in Tripoli, a Mediterranean port that has seen some of the worst Syria crossover violence. Sunni gunmen have sporadically clashed with fighters from the city’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam to which the Assad family belongs.
Former internal security chief Ashraf Rifi, whose home was damaged by the second blast, warned that Lebanon was facing a gathering storm of violence.
“We are still in the beginning of the storm and we must remain aware and try to protect this nation,” he said, speaking outside his home. “This storm has become a huge, grave danger.”
Witnesses at the scene of the blasts said anger was rising among locals, who were shouting out accusations that Assad’s government or Hezbollah were behind the attack.
Hezbollah released a statement condemning the Tripoli blasts and expressing solidarity with the victims, saying they were targets of efforts to fan more violence in Lebanon.
“We consider this the completion of an effort to plunge Lebanon into chaos and destruction,” the statement said.
Hezbollah’s political opponents called on the group to withdraw its forces from Syria in response to Friday’s attack.
Lebanese Defence Minister Fayez Ghosn warned against being dragged into deeper sectarian bloodshed. “We are calling for calm and vigilance, because the aim of this (blasts) is to stoke strife between sects,” he told LBC.
The southern suburb of Beirut dominated by Hezbollah has been hit by two car bombs in just over a month. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah blamed radical Sunni Islamists.
Salem al-Rafei, chief cleric of the Taqwa mosque, is a staunch supporter of Syrian Sunni rebels as well as Lebanese Sunni militants who have joined the anti-Assad battle in Syria. (Writing by Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny; Editing by Mark Heinrich)