Car bomb rocks Beirut, triggering fears of a wider conflict

Friday, October 19, 2012 - 10:36am

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- Minutes after a deadly bomb ripped through a calm and urbane neighborhood in the heart of Beirut, the city's silent majority shuddered.

The car bomb rocked the main Christian area of Lebanon's capital, a populous stretch replete with shops, churches and office buildings. The massive blast killed eight people and wounded more than 90 others, leaving a huge crater of rubble near Sassine Square in East Beirut's Ashrafiyeh district.

While it's still too early to determine who was behind the attack, it unearthed fears that Lebanon's bad old days are back again.

The neighborhood traditionally has not endured this kind of violence, residents say.

Shortly after the blast, panicked and tearful residents poured out of apartments at the site, some carrying victims to ambulances. The impact left rows of mangled cars and charred buildings, and even shook the windows in CNN's offices, about a 10-minute drive from the scene. At least one car was engulfed in flames, blackened wreckage littered the street, and windows were blown out.

As they gaped at the carnage, residents worried aloud that the blast could be a harbinger of a return to the fighting and killing that embroiled Lebanon over recent decades.

Many Lebanese civilians fear that Syria's civil war could spill over into Lebanon, which is recovering from its own 15-year-long civil war that ended in 1990. Since then, Lebanon has been plagued by assassinations and sectarian tensions among Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and others.

Authorities, for their part, say they don't believe there were political targets in the Friday bombing. Most likely, the aim was to "terrorize the Lebanese," instead of target an individual, according to regional analyst Amal Mudallali.

"This is targeting the stability and security of Lebanon," said Mudallali, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center's Middle East program.

Lebanese news media said the car blew up 200 meters from the office of the anti-Syrian Lebanese Kataeb political movement, a Maronite Christian group.

However, there has been a widespread belief on the street that it's in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's interest to promote instability in Lebanon and elsewhere to turn attention away from the civil war in Syria.

The Kataeb is part of the March 14 movement, the anti-Syrian regime coalition that emerged after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That movement was key in forcing the withdrawal of Syrian troops, which had long occupied neighboring Lebanon and pulled out months after Hariri was killed.

Shortly after Friday's bombing in Beirut, Syria condemned the attack as a cowardly act.

"Such terrorist acts are condemned and unjustifiable wherever they happen," Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said.
 

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