BEIRUT — Two suicide attacks in rapid succession devastated the Iranian embassy and surrounding areas in southern Beirut Tuesday morning, killing tens of people and throwing an already tense Lebanon into further disarray as more violence apparently linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria hit the capital.
A shadowy al Qaida styled group -- the Abdullah Azzam Brigades -- claimed responsibility in a statement that cannot be verified but the Lebanese organization said attacks on Hezbollah and Iran would continue until both withdraw their military support for the embattled Syrian regime.
Both witnesses and the Lebanese Army described the first attacker as riding a motorcycle packed with a small explosive charge that targeted the Iranian Embassys heavy external security, followed a few moments later by a much larger bomb that targeted the building itself.
There was an explosion then after a bit, another much larger explosion, said Mahmoud Abbas, who sells coffee from a pushcart near the embassy, which sits in an affluent area of southern Beirut that is home to luxury apartments and embassies in an area widely considered under the control of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
The Lebanese Health Ministry said at least 23 bodies had been recovered and that a search for additional victims continued. Local media said that at least 200 people were wounded in blast. Initial reports that Irans cultural attaché had been killed were later retracted as the Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Rokn Abadi, announced that Sheikh Ibrahim al Ansari had suffered severe head wounds but had survived.
At least two Iranians and several Hezbollah security personnel died in Tuesdays attacks.
The explosion reinforced a widespread belief among Lebanons strongly pro-Hezbollah Shiite population that it would remain a target of jihadist groups that have flooded Syria in an effort to expel Hezbollahs key ally, President Bashar al Assad. A series of two other car bombs and several rocket attacks on the area over the summer led to extreme security measures by Hezbollah who has security autonomy from the Lebanese government.
They are not Muslims, they are animals, said Miriam, a local resident as she went to find her children at a nearby school. They will never stop attacking us.
Much of southern Beirut remains under tight Hezbollah and Lebanese Army and police security, including extraordinary measures during last weeks religious Shiite commemoration that saw the area shut to street traffic and armed patrols covering entrances and key areas. Although Hezbollah maintains a strong security presence around its top ally and patrons embassy, the area itself is located away from Hezbollahs office complex in a nearby neighborhood.
The embassy isnt in the [security zone], said a harried Hezbollah security official in a brief phone call after the blast. Embassys have to be open, theyre very hard to protect.