BEIRUT // Twin car bombs in northern Lebanon killed at least 42 people and injured hundreds gathered near two mosques yesterday, in the deadliest single attack since the country’s civil war ended.
The apparently coordinated blasts in Tripoli raised fears that sectarian violence would continue to rise in Lebanon as a direct result of the civil war in Syria.
The mainly Sunni city has seen frequent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites, the Shiite offshoot to which Syria’s president Bashar Al Assad belongs. But the city has rarely been the target of bomb attacks.
The first explosion hit the Taqwa mosque and killed at least 14 people there, accounts earlier in the day said.
More deaths were reported from a second blast a few minutes later outside Al Salam mosque, which the interior ministry said was hit by a car laden with 100 kilograms of explosives.
Footage on Lebanese television showed black smoke billowing over the city, bodies scattered beside burning cars at the Taqwa mosque and a large crater outside Al Salam. Both mosques are popular with Salafist preachers.
“We were just bowing down to pray for the second time and the bomb went off,” said Samir Jadool, 39. “The air cleared and I looked around me and saw bodies.”
Medical and security sources said the death toll had risen to 42 by the evening, making it the worst single attack since Lebanon’s civil war, between 1975 and 1990. The bombings came a week after a similar attack killed 24 in a Beirut stronghold of the Shiite militant group Hizbollah.
For more than a year, increasing sectarian violence in Lebanon led many to proclaim that the war in Syria had spilled over into its neighbour.
But the increasing number of attacks and greater ferocity of violence over the past month underscored the human toll of proxy warfare. Almost all of the victims have been civilians.
After the bombs exploded, gunmen took to the streets of Tripoli and fired into the air.
The car bombings yesterday and last week marked the end of an “unspoken regional understanding to use Lebanon as a gateway to Syria, rather than a battlefield”, said Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “The recent explosions and the size of them shows that this understanding is unravelling.”
Together with the eroding capacity of the state to deal with attacks, the situation was ushering in a new period of violence in Lebanon but would not likely result in a full-out war, he said.
A previously unknown Sunni extremist group took responsibility for last week’s bombing in southern Beirut and no one admitted to yesterday’s attack, but there was little doubt in Lebanon that they were related to the civil war in Syria.
Lebanon, a country whose government shares power by religious denomination, has long been vulnerable to sectarian flare-ups.
Until the recent attacks, the country had proven resilient to wider bloodshed.
What began as small-scale street fighting between groups opposing and supporting the Assad regime in the early days of Syria’s conflict has turned into high-casualty car bombings over the past week.
The worsening is rooted in the decision this summer by Hizbollah, which is also Lebanon’s most powerful political force, to publicly throw its weight behind the Assad government.
Hizbollah fighters have since crossed into Syria to aid the army, helping it to win several key battles against the rebellion.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary general, has cast the Syrian civil war as a battle between a crucial component of the "axis of resistance" against Israel, Hizbollah's sworn enemy, and a rebellion aided by western and Arabian Gulf countries looking to weaken its enemies in the region.
Mr Nasrallah also vowed to prevent the war from overflowing into Lebanon.
After last week’s bombing in Ruwais, near a square where Mr Nasrallah often gives speeches, his rhetoric has become more hardline, said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.
“In his last speech he indicated that he now sees the threat within Lebanon, not just Syria,” Mr Lister said. “That was an escalatory move.”
Almost all of the other mainstream political groups in Lebanon have opposed Hizbollah’s ventures in Syria, arguing it would destabilise the country.
Officials have also taken pains to avoid direct confrontations with Hizbollah. Caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati went only so far as to blame the “hand of criminality” for the bombings that were a “clear message aimed to plant strife”.
Syrian rebels, from the Free Syrian Army and Al Nusra Front, have said they would seek revenge on Hizbollah's turf.
Lebanon is also facing fresh tensions along its border with Israel. Four rockets were fired from south Lebanon into Israel on Thursday in one of the biggest provocations in years.
But that attack was also mysterious. An extremist group, Abdallah Azzam Brigade, claimed it was behind the attack, but Israel fired missiles at the camp of another group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-Direct Command, yesterday morning.
The Popular Front later said it had nothing to do with the bombing.
No one was killed or injured in either attack.
* Additional reporting by Reuters