BEIRUT - Two suicide car bombs targeted an Iranian cultural centre in Beirut Wednesday, killing six people in the latest attack linked to the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
The attack was quickly claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a jihadist group inspired by Al-Qaeda that previously claimed a double suicide bombing aimed at Iran’s embassy in Beirut.
Jihadists have carried out a string of attacks in Lebanon targeting both Iran and the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, which provide vital support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as it battles a Sunni-led rebellion. The health ministry said six people were killed and 129 others wounded, with the army saying one of the cars was loaded with 90 kilos (198 pounds) of explosives and the other with 75 kilos. The blasts, in the capital’s southern district of Bir Hassan, sent a large plume of smoke over the area and caused widespread damage.
Emergency teams carried wounded people away from a charred street strewn with rubble, as local residents armed with fire extinguishers helped firefighters put out blazes.
The arms of a wounded man hung limply from the sides of a yellow stretcher as he was carried from the scene.
“I was driving my car with my wife to the university when we were hit by the force of the blast and I found pieces of human flesh on my face,” Yousef al-Tawil, a professor at the Lebanese University, told AFP.
Dozens of children at a nearby orphanage witnessed the explosion, some cut by flying debris. Bewildered in the chaotic aftermath, many were crying.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an Al-Qaeda-inspired group, claimed the “double martyrdom operation” on Twitter and pledged to continue its attacks against Iran and “its party” — a reference to Hezbollah.
“We will continue... to target Iran and its party in Lebanon, in its security and political and military centres, until our demands are achieved,” the group said.
“First: that the Party of Iran (Hezbollah) withdraws its forces from Syria. Second, that our prisoners are released from Lebanese prisons.”
Hezbollah acknowledged last year that it has dispatched forces to bolster Assad’s troops against an uprising that began in March 2011.
The war regularly spills into Lebanon in the form of rocket fire from the Syrian side, including 10 rockets that hit the eastern Bekaa on Wednesday without causing injuries.
The jihadist Al-Nusra Front in Lebanon, which is loyal to Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility via Twitter for five of the rocket attacks.
Hezbollah says its involvement is necessary to protect Lebanon from Sunni extremists, but critics accuse it of embroiling the country in Syria’s conflict.
Sunni extremist have said they will target Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, until it withdraws from Syria, and the group has seen its strongholds hit by several bomb attacks that have killed civilians.
In November, the Azzam Brigades claimed a double suicide bombing that killed at least 25 people at the Iranian embassy, also in the Bir Hassan district.
Other attacks have targeted the southern suburbs of Beirut and the eastern town of Hermel, where Hezbollah commands widespread support.
Wednesday’s bombings are evidence of the challenges facing Lebanon’s new government, formed at the weekend and ending a 10-month political vacuum.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the attack, saying it was a “message reflecting the determination of the forces of evil to harm Lebanon and its children and sow discord.”
“The message has been received and we will respond to it with solidarity and commitment to civil accord and rallying around our army and our security forces,” he said in a statement.
Interior Minister Nuhad Mashnuq echoed that on a visit to the scene of the bombing, urging all political parties to work together to stop future attacks and to support the army.
US Ambassador David Hale, condemned the attacks as “abhorrent,” and British Minister of State for the Middle East Hugh Robertson said “such criminal and callous attacks cannot be allowed to destabilise the country and the wider region.”
For its part, Iran’s foreign ministry blamed “agents” of Hezbollah’s archenemy Israel.