Deaths as suspected car bomb rocks Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut
At least five people killed as suspected car bomb explodes close to Shiite group's 'politburo'
An explosion rocked a stronghold of the Shiite Hezbollah group in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital, killing at least five people, setting cars ablaze and sending a column of black smoke above the Beirut skyline.
The explosion hit during rush hour in the Haret Hreik neighbourhood. A Lebanese security official said it appeared to be caused by a car bomb.
It is the latest in a wave of attacks to hit Lebanon in recent months as the civil war in Syria increasingly spills over into its smaller neighbour.
The attacks have targeted both Sunni and Shiite neighbourhoods, further stoking sectarian tensions that are already running high because of the war next door.
Lebanon's Health Ministry said at least five people were killed and 20 wounded in the explosion, which left cars mangled in the street and shop windows blown out.
Images broadcast on Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV showed firefighters putting out the smouldering remains of several cars that had been set ablaze. At least one building had part of its facade blown off and several neighbouring ones were also damaged.
Al-Manar said the explosion occurred "a few hundred metres from the politburo of Hezbollah". It said the political office was not the target of the blast.
Hezbollah security agents and Lebanese troops cordoned off the area.
"Suddenly, the whole area went bright and we started running away," Ali Oleik, an accountant who works in a nearby office building, said. "I saw two bodies on the street, one of a woman and another of a man on a motorcycle who was totally deformed."
Authorities brought out bomb-sniffing dogs, and at one point announced that there might be another bomb, setting the crowd scattering in panic from the area.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar television aired footage of bystanders scrambling to douse burning vehicles in a car park beneath a building whose facade had been burned out.
The official National News Agency reported that the explosion was caused by an explosives-packed four-wheel-drive vehicle.
The blast came a week after a car bombing in downtown Beirut killed a prominent Sunni politician who had been critical of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Hezbollah allies.
Hezbollah's once seemingly impenetrable bastion of support - Beirut's southern suburbs - has also been hit several times in recent months.
The bombing followed a twin suicide bombing which hit the Iranian embassy in south Beirut on November 19, killing 25 people, and a day after Defence Minister Fayez Ghosn revealed that Lebanese troops had arrested the leader of the al-Qaeda-linked group which claimed it was behind the attack.
Saudi national Majid al-Majid, "emir" of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, was being interrogated at a secret location, Ghosn said. The group was formed in 2009 and is believed to have branches in both the Arabian Peninsula and Lebanon.
Riyadh welcomed Majid's arrest, the Saudi-owned daily A l-Hayat reported.
The Haret Hreik neighbourhood where yesterday's explosion took place is close to the Beir al-Abed district where a powerful car bomb in August killed nearly 20 people.
Additional reporting by Associated Press