BEIRUT // Two suicide bombers killed Iran’s cultural attaché and 22 other people outside the Iranian Embassy in a Shiite neighbourhood of Beirut yesterday.
Footage from local news channels showed charred bodies on the ground as flames rose from the remains of several vehicles. Aid workers and residents carried away some of the victims on blankets.
At least 140 people were also injured in the blasts in the upscale neighbourhood of Janah, a stronghold of the Lebanese Shiite Hizbollah group.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigade, which has links with Al Qaeda, said it was responsible for the bombings that have highlighted the intensifying proxy battle between factions fighting in Syria’s civil war.
The brigade warned more attacks would follow unless Hizbollah, which is backed by Iran, withdraws its fighters from Syria. They have fought alongside Bashar Al Assad’s military against Syrian rebels, helping them to several military victorices, notably in Qusayr in May this year.
A Lebanese security official said the first suicide attacker was on a motorcycle that carried two kilograms of explosives. He blew himself up at the large black main gate of the Iranian mission, damaging the three-storey building, the official said.
Less than two minutes later, a second suicide attacker driving a car rigged with 50 kilograms of explosives struck about 10 metres away, the official said.
Iranian ambassador, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, identified the dead attaché as Sheik Ibrahim Ansari. Speaking to Hizbollah’s Al-Manar TV from inside the embassy compound, he said Ansari took his post in Lebanon a month ago and was overseeing all regional cultural activities. Al-Manar reported that the street targeted by the suicide bombers includes a building where some of the Iranian diplomats and their families live.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, said the bombings were “an alarm for all of us”.
“The tragedy today ... should be an alarm for all of us that we need to deal with and unless we deal with it seriously, it will engulf all of us,” Zarif said after talks with his Italian counterpart Emma Bonino in Rome.
Asked about the blame laid on Israel by his ministry, he said: “We have reason to be suspicious of every move they make. Every move they make is about spreading tension and mistrust.”
He said the attack was a symptom of the “extremism” spreading in the Middle East, particularly from Syria.
“There is every reason to be concerned about it. Extremism cannot be contained in any single country,” he said.
“It’s a very serious problem. Once we see a flare-up of the tension that is boiling in Syria there will hardly a possibility of stopping it at the Syrian border, or even in the Middle East,” he said.
Sectarian violence has surged in Lebanon since May when Hizbollah acknowledged it had joined the Assad regime in the war against mainly Sunni rebels. Two bombs in Beirut’s southern suburb, a Hizbollah stronghold, killed more than a dozen people in July and August.
“We tell those who carried out the attack, you will not be able to break us,” Hizbollah MP Ali Mikdad told Al-Mayadeen TV. “We got the message and we know who sent it and we know how to retaliate.”
Another Hizbollah official, Mahmoud Komati, told reporters at the scene that the attacks were a direct result of the “successive defeats suffered by extremists in Syria”.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility for the attacks, although the authenticity of the claim could not be independently verified.
The Brigades posted the claim on a militant website and it also appeared on the Twitter account of Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a spokesman for the group.
The group is active in southern Lebanon and has issued claims in the past for rocket attacks into northern Israel. It has also claimed a July 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Arabian Gulf and a 2005 rocket attack that narrowly missed a US amphibious assault ship docked at Jordan’s Aqaba Red Sea resort.
In 2011, the Obama administration added a senior member of the group, Saudi citizen Saleh Al Qarawi, to the list of global terrorists subject to US sanctions.
At the scene of the blasts, blood was puddled on the ground, and debris and tree limbs torn off by the blasts were scattered over the streets. Video showed firefighters extinguishing flames from burning vehicles, blood-spattered streets and bodies covered with sheets on the ground. A charred motorcycle stood outside the embassy gate.
A woman, unable to stand, clutched a man, pleading with security forces for help.
“Nader,” she wailed, crying out a man’s name. “Nader is missing.” Another man ran from the area, carrying a South Asian migrant worker limp in his arms.
“People aren’t sacred anymore. We aren’t safe,” said a mechanic whose store windows were shattered by the blasts. He declined to be identified because he did not want to be seen as involved in sectarian tensions that have split the Lebanese over Syria’s conflict.
The explosions occurred hours before Lebanon and Iran were supposed to play a World Cup qualifier football match.
Associated Press with additional reporting by Bloomberg News and Agence France-Presse