BEIRUT -- A pair of explosions apparently targeting the Iranian Embassy rocked a southern Beirut neighborhood early Tuesday, leaving at least 20 dead, including an Iranian diplomat, and close to 100 injured, authorities said.
The attacks appeared to be the latest spillover of violence from neighboring Syria, where a
[Updated, 4:52 a.m. PST Nov. 19: In a series of posts on Twitter, an Al Qaeda-linked faction known as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for Tuesday's twin blasts outside the embassy.
The group, based in Lebanon, described the incident as a double-suicide attack and demanded the release of prisoners from Lebanese jails and the withdrawal of Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based political and military organization, from Syria.]
Official Iranian media reported that among those killed was Ebrahim Ansari, Iran's cultural attache to Lebanon.
Iran's ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, was reported to be safe and was offered condolences by Lebanon's caretaker prime minister,
The blasts were the work of a pair of suicide bombers, one who detonated a payload while on foot and another while in a car, Lebanon's national news agency said.
At the chaotic scene, ambulances were taking away casualties as residents manned hoses to put out several fires. Television images from the area showed cars ablaze, heavily damaged buildings, charred bodies on the ground and dark smoke rising into the sky.
Hospitals in the area put out appeals for blood, local media reported.
The explosions took place in the Jnah district, where the Iranian Embassy is situated, along with several Iranian media outlets. Initial reports indicated that the embassy was the likely target. One report said that the car bomb went off about 10 yards from the embassy building.
The area near the embassy is heavily guarded, and the explosions would appear to indicate a major security breech.
Analysts immediately linked the blasts to the war raging in neighboring Syria, which has deeply divided Lebanon along sectarian lines, between supporters and opponents of the government of Assad. Throughout the region, the Syrian conflict has heightened tensions between adherents of Islam's two major branches, Shiite and Sunni.
Shiite Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, are key supporters of the Syrian government, and Hezbollah has dispatched fighters to assist Assad's forces. Other Lebanese factions back the mostly Sunni Muslim armed rebellion seeking to overthrow the more than four-decade rule of the Assad family, who are members of the Alawite sect, regarded as a Shiite offshoot.
Just last week, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said that the group would continue to send its militiamen to Syria to fight alongside government forces. The announcement drew condemnation from anti-Assad groups in Lebanon and Syria.
Lebanese officials, keen to avoid their nation being drawn into Syria's civil war, have declared a policy of neutrality in the conflict. Many in Lebanon fear the Syrian war could destabilize Lebanon's fragile, multi-sectarian democracy, still brittle following Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
The bombings occurred as Syrian forces appear to be mounting major counterattacks against rebel positions throughout Syria, including opposition strongholds near the Lebanese border. Several thousand Syrians fleeing the fighting escaped last week to Lebanon, which is already home to nearly 1 million refugees from Syria.
The blasts were the latest to hit Lebanon, which has been the site of a number of attacks linked to the Syrian conflict.
Last summer, a powerful car bomb killed more than two dozen people and injured hundreds in a southern Beirut neighborhood where Hezbollah is heavily supported. Hezbollah blamed militants fighting in Syria for the attack.