BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah on Friday blamed Sunni extremists for a string of attacks targeting the group's strongholds over the past few months, including a car bombing that killed 22 people and wounded more than 300 a day earlier.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said all preliminary investigations showed Takfiri groups — a term for Sunni radicals — were likely behind the bombing in a predominantly Shiite southern suburb of Beirut, as well as other recent attacks.
He also pledged to double the number of Hezbollah fighters in neighboring Syria, who have travelled there to support the regime of President Bashar Assad.
"If you think that by killing our women and children ... and destroying our neighborhoods, villages and cities we will retreat or back away from our position, you are wrong," he said in a speech to supporters marking the end of the 2006 monthlong war with Israel.
"If the battle with these terrorist Takfiris requires for me personally and all of Hezbollah to go to Syria, we will go to Syria," he said, drawing thunderous applause from thousands of supporters gathered in a village in south Lebanon bordering Israel. The crowd watched him speak on a large screen via satellite link.
Thursday's car bomb struck a crowded street in the Rweiss district in Beirut's southern suburbs, an overwhelmingly Shiite area and stronghold of Hezbollah. The explosion sent a massive plume of black smoke billowing into the sky, set several cars and buildings ablaze and trapped dozens of residents in their homes for hours.
The bombing was the second in just more than a month to hit one of the Shiite group's bastions of support, and the deadliest since 1985 when a blast in the area killed 80 people. Many in Lebanon see the attacks as retaliation for Hezbollah's armed support for Assad in Syria's civil war.
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 Hezbollah guerrillas are now aiding a regime offensive in the besieged city of Homs.
Syrian rebels have threatened to retaliate against Hezbollah for intervening on behalf of Assad. Thursday's car bombing raises the worrying specter of Lebanon being pulled further into the Syrian civil war, which is being fought on increasingly sectarian lines pitting Sunnis against Shiites.
Nasrallah said his response to such bombings will be to double the number of fighters in Syria, if the need arises.
He said the war will be costly, "but less costly than for us to be slaughtered like sheep."