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Death toll from car bombing in Hezbollah's Beirut stronghold at least 14

BEIRUT — A deadly explosion Thursday in a densely populated district of southern Beirut, a stronghold of the Hezbollah group, fanned new fears of violent fallout in Lebanon from the ongoing war in neighboring Syria.

Initial news service reports indicated that as many as nine were killed and 30 injured in the explosion; there was no immediate official casualty count.

[Updated 2:06 p.m., Aug. 15: Lebanese authorities later said that at least 14 were killed and more than 200 injured in the attack. Media accounts put the death toll at more than 20.]

The source of the explosion was a car bomb, according to local media accounts. If so, the attack would mark the second time in the last two months that a car bomb had detonated in southern Beirut, a bastion of Hezbollah, the powerful Islamist political, paramilitary and social service organization.

Video footage from the site showed chaotic scenes of angry and stunned residents gathering as a thick column of smoke rose into the sky. Several cars appeared to have been engulfed in flames and a number of buildings damaged. There were reports that some people were trapped at the site of the explosion. Fires raged almost an hour after the blast, which occurred about 6 p.m., an hour when many residents would probably be out on the streets after the midday heat had abated.

The incident immediately raised fears that the explosion could be related to the war in neighboring Syria. Hezbollah is a major supporter of the government of President Bashar Assad and has dispatched militiamen to Syria to fight on the government’s behalf. Some anti-Assad militants have vowed to strike at Hezbollah in its Lebanese homeland if Hezbollah does not withdraw its fighters from Syria.

The war in Syria has severely elevated tensions in Lebanon, where a fragile democracy has been in place since the end of the sectarian-fueled civil war that concluded in 1990. Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim group. Many Sunni Muslims in Lebanon sympathize with the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria and have assailed Hezbollah’s role in backing Assad.

Early last month, a car bomb exploded in southern Beirut, injuring more than 50 people. A hitherto unknown group calling itself a Syrian rebel brigade claimed responsibility, but law enforcement authorities in Lebanon never publicly authenticated the claim.

Following that attack, Hezbollah beefed up security in southern Beirut, a sprawling residential and commercial district with many multi-story apartment buildings. But authorities say that screening every vehicle entering the bustling zone is extremely difficult.

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Twitter: @mcdneville

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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