BEIRUT (AP) — A powerful car bomb ripped through a crowded southern Beirut neighborhood that is a stronghold of the militant group Hezbollah on Thursday, killing at least 14 people and trapping dozens of others in burning cars and buildings in the latest apparent violence linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria, officials said.
Groups opposed to Syria's President Bashar Assad have threatened to retaliate against Hezbollah for intervening on behalf of his regime in the conflict. The blast raises the worrying specter of Lebanon being pulled further into the Syrian civil war, which is taking on an increasingly sectarian tone.
It was the second such explosion in just over a month in south Beirut, an overwhelmingly Shiite area tightly controlled by Hezbollah, and the deadliest attack in decades against the neighborhoods that are considered key bastions of support for the group. The blast appeared to be an attempt to sow fear among the group's civilian supporters and did not target any known Hezbollah facility or personality.
Lebanese TV showed raging fires and thick black smoke from the blast, which set ablaze several cars and buildings. Dozens of ambulances rushed to the scene of the explosion and fire fighters were seen using ladders trying to evacuate residents from burning buildings.
The state-run National News Agency said at least 14 died and 212 were wounded.
The army, in a statement, said the explosion was caused by a car blast. It called on residents to cooperate with security forces trying to evacuated people trapped in their homes.
The explosion occurred on a bustling commercial and residential street in the Rweiss district, a heavily Shiite area and one of Hezbollah's bastions of support. Last month, a car bomb exploded in the nearby Beir al-Abed district, wounding more than 50 people.
Hezbollah's Al Manar TV said Thursday's blast occurred on the main road separating Rweiss from Beir al-Abed. It said several bodies were seen on the street following the explosion, which went off about 100 meters (yards) away from the Sayyed al-Shuhada complex where Hezbollah holds rallies.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who has lived in hiding since his group's 2006 month-long war with Israel, made a rare public appearance at the complex on Aug. 2, where he addressed hundreds of supporters.
It was the worst explosion in south Beirut since a 1985 truck bomb assassination attempt targeting top Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. That blast in Beir al-Abed left 80 people dead.
An Associated Press photographer saw at least two bodies and many wounded people at the scene of the explosion Thursday. Panicked Hezbollah fighters fired in the air to clear the area.
Sunni-Shiite tensions have risen sharply in Lebanon, particularly since Hezbollah raised its profile by openly fighting alongside Assad's forces. Lebanese Sunnis support the rebels fighting to topple Assad, a member of a Shiite offshoot sect.
Syria-based rebels and militant Islamist groups have threatened to target Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon in retaliation for its increasingly overt role in Syria. The group's fighters played a key role in a recent regime victory in the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border, and Syrian activists say they are now aiding a regime offensive in the besieged city of Homs.
Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Ammar called it a "terrorist" attack and called for restraint among the group's supporters. He suggested the group's political rivals in Lebanon were responsible for creating an atmosphere that encourages such attacks.
Lebanon is sharply split along sectarian lines and among supporters and opponents of Assad's regime. Politicians within Lebanon's Western-backed coalition have slammed the group for its involvement in Syria and called for its disarmament.
U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly strongly condemned the bombing. In comments posted on the U.S. Embassy's Facebook page, Connelly called for all parties to exercise calm and restraint.
The British Foreign Office official in charge of Middle East policy, Alistair Burt, also condemned the attack.
"Terrorism and extremism have no place in Lebanon. I call for the Lebanese state to investigate this urgently and bring the perpetrators to justice," he said in a statement.
Outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati declared Friday a day of mourning for the victims of the attack.