Beirut bomb blasts outside Iranian embassy kill 23, including diplomat
Twin Beirut bombs targeting backers of Assad government claimed by al-Qaeda-linked group
Two suicide bombers detonated blasts outside the Iranian embassy in a mainly Shiite district of the Lebanese capital yesterday, killing 23 people, including the Iranian cultural attaché, apparently in retaliation for the Lebanese group Hezbollah's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The bombings appeared to be another strike in an intensifying proxy battle over Syria's civil war that is rattling its smaller neighbour Lebanon.
An al-Qaeda-linked Sunni extremist group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying more would follow unless the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah withdraws fighters that have helped Assad's military score key victories over Syrian rebels.
The mid-morning blasts hit the upmarket neighbourhood of Janah, a Hezbollah stronghold, leaving bodies and pools of blood on the glass-strewn street amid burning cars. More than 140 people were wounded, officials said.
A Lebanese security official said the first suicide attacker was on a motorcycle that carried 2kg of explosives. He blew himself up at the large black main gate of the Iranian mission, damaging the three-storey facility.
Less than two minutes later, a second suicide attacker driving a car rigged with 50kg of explosives struck about 10 metres away, an official said.
The bombing was one of the deadliest in a string of attacks that have targeted Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon in recent months in a campaign of retaliation by Sunni radicals over its backing of Assad in Syria's bloody conflict, now in its third year.
Video: Strong blasts kill 23 near Iran embassy in Beirut
In recent weeks, Hezbollah fighters have backed Assad's troops in a series of victories over rebels, taking back a string of rebel-held towns in Syria. Shiite Iran is believed to be providing Assad's government with money and weapons.
Senior Hezbollah official Mahmoud Komati said at the scene the attacks were a direct result of the "successive defeats suffered by [extremists] in Syria".
He described the blasts as a "message of blood and death" to Iran and Hezbollah for standing by Syria, and vowed they would not alter their position.
Lebanon's sectarian divisions have been inflamed by the war next door. Lebanese Sunnis largely back the rebellion and Shiites largely support Assad - and the tensions have repeatedly flared into clashes and bloodshed in Lebanon.
Iran's foreign minister blamed Israel for the attacks. Hezbollah and Syrian officials indirectly blamed Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Arab kingdom that along with fellow Gulf nation Qatar has backed Syria's rebels.
"Each of the terrorist attacks that strike in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq reeks of petrodollars," a Syrian government statement said, in a clear reference to oil-rich Gulf Arab countries.
A Lebanese al-Qaeda-linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility for yesterday's attacks, saying they would continue until Hezbollah withdraws its forces from Syria.
The authenticity of the claim could not be independently verified, but it was posted on a militant website and on the Twitter account of Azzam Brigades spkesman Sirajuddin Zurayqat.
Iran identified the dead diplomat as Sheik Ibrahim Ansari.
The explosions occurred hours before Lebanon's and Iran's soccer teams were to play a World Cup qualifier. Lebanon's state-run news agency NNA said the match would be held later yesterday but without spectators.