BEIRUT – A powerful car bomb tore through a bustling south Beirut neighborhood that is a stronghold of Hezbollah on Thursday, killing at least 18 and trapping dozens of others in an inferno of burning cars and buildings in the bloodiest attack yet on Lebanese civilians linked to Syria’s civil war.
The blast is the second in just over a month to hit one of the Shiite militant group’s bastions of support, and the deadliest in decades. It raises the specter of a sharply divided Lebanon being pulled further into the conflict next door, which is being fought on increasingly sectarian lines pitting Sunnis against Shiites.
Syria-based Sunni rebels and militant Islamist groups fighting to topple Syria’s President Bashar Assad have threatened to target Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon in retaliation for intervening on behalf of his regime in the conflict.
Thursday’s explosion ripped through a crowded, overwhelmingly Shiite area tightly controlled by Hezbollah, turning streets lined with vegetable markets, bakeries and shops into scenes of destruction.
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 figure.
Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV and Red Cross official George Kattaneh said the death toll was at least 18 and more than 280 were wounded. The army, in a statement, said the explosion was caused by a car bomb.
Syria’s conflict has spilled across the border into its neighbor on multiple occasions in the past two years. Fire from Syria has hit border villages, while clashes between Lebanese factions backing different sides have left scores dead.
But direct attacks against civilian targets were rare until Hezbollah stepped up its role in Syria. Since then, its support bases in southern Beirut have been targeted. Since May, rockets have been fired at suburbs controlled by the group on two occasions, wounding four people. On July 9, a car bomb exploded in the nearby Beir al-Abed district, wounding more than 50 people.
However Thursday’s explosion was much deadlier than those, and was the bloodiest single attack in south Beirut since a 1985 truck bomb assassination attempt targeting top Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in Beir al-Abed left 80 people dead.