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 three people, wounding over 120, and trapping dozens of others in burning cars and buildings, officials said.
It was the second such blast in just over a month in south Beirut, an overwhelmingly Shiite area tightly controlled by Hezbollah and considered a bastion of support for the group.
Groups opposed to Syria's President Bashar Assad have threatened to retaliate against Hezbollah for intervening on behalf of his regime in the Syrian civil war. The blast raises the worrying specter of Lebanon being pulled into the violent Sunni-Shiite struggle in the region, with sectarian killings similar to those plaguing Syria and Iraq.
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 three died and 20 were wounded, but Red Cross official George Kattaneh said there were over 120 wounded and a "large number" killed.
The army, in a statement, said the explosion was caused by a car blast.
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.
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 and confiscated photographers' cameras.
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.