August 23, 2013

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Twin car bombs exploded Friday outside mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, killing at least 29 people, wounding more than 350 and wreaking major destruction in the country’s second largest city, officials said.

Footage aired on local television stations showed thick, black smoke billowing over the city and bodies scattered beside burning cars in scenes reminiscent of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

The blasts hit amid soaring tensions in Lebanon as a result of Syria’s civil war, particularly following the open participation of the militant Shiite Hezbollah group on behalf of embattled President Bashar Assad. Their entry into the war has further polarized the country along sectarian lines. Preachers at both of the targeted mosques are virulent opponents of Assad and Hezbollah.

Friday’s attack was the second such bombing in more than a week, showing the degree to which the tiny country is being consumed by the raging war next door. Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city, has seen frequent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites, a Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs. But the city itself has rarely seen such bombings in recent years.

It was the most powerful and deadliest bombing in Tripoli since the end of the civil war. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Dozens of bearded gunmen deployed on the streets of Tripoli following the attacks, checking people’s identity card and driving around in SUVs. A prominent Salafist sheik, Dai al-Islam Shahhal, said Sunnis in Tripoli would take security in their own hands going forward, blaming the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon for the bombings.

Attacks have become common in the past few months against Shiite strongholds in Lebanon. On Aug. 15, a car bomb rocked a Shiite stronghold of Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of Beirut, killing 27 people and wounding more than 300. A less powerful car bomb targeted the same area on July 9, wounding more than 50.

Witness Samir Darwish said he was in a Tripoli square when he heard the first explosion and ran in the direction of the fire to the Salam Mosque, one of the two targeted. “I came here and saw the catastrophe. Bloodied people were running in the street, several other dead bodies were scattered on the ground,” he said. “It looked like doomsday, death was everywhere.”

Hezbollah swiftly condemned the bombings, calling it a “terrorist bombing” and part of a “criminal project that aims to sow the seeds of civil strife between the Lebanese and drag them into sectarian and ethnic infighting.”

In a strongly worded statement, the group expressed “utmost solidarity and unity with our brothers in the beloved city of Tripoli.” The bombings came the same day Israeli warplanes struck a target south of Beirut, hours after militants in south Lebanon fired four rockets into northern Israel. It was the first air raid on the area since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. The strike demonstrates the chaos and security challenges engulfing Lebanon, which has been without a functioning government since March, largely because of infighting between political factions.

The explosions shattered windows in apartment blocks over a wide area and triggered car fires that left the charred bodies of trapped people inside. After the bombings, bloodied people could be seen being ferried away by screaming residents. Gunmen took to the streets, firing in the air in anger, which delayed the arrival of army troops and investigators.

Local media and mosques called for blood donations. Hospitals were overwhelmed with the dead and wounded. The blasts went off on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, when places of worship would be packed. A security official said one of the blasts exploded outside the Taqwa mosque, the usual place of prayer for Sheik Salem Rafei, a Salafi cleric opposed to Hezbollah. It was not clear whether he was inside the mosque, but Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said he wasn’t hurt.

The official said the blast went off as worshippers were streaming out of the mosque. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. The second car bomb explosion went off about five minutes later in the Mina district of Tripoli, about five meters from the gate to the Salam Mosque. The explosion blew open a 5-meter (16-foot) -wide and 1-meter (3-foot) -deep crater outside the mosque.

Former Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, a senior leader in the Western-backed, anti-Hezbollah coalition in Lebanon, called on the group to withdraw its fighters immediately from Syria, saying its involvement in the war has opened Lebanon to terrorist threats.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati declared Saturday to be a day of mourning for the dead. The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon condemned the bombings and called on all parties to exercise calm and restraint.

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed from Beirut.