A car packed with explosives blew up in a Shia Muslim neighborhood on Beirut's southern outskirts Friday, destroying an eight-story apartment building and damaging a mosque filled with worshipers gathering for Sabbath prayers.
By late Friday, police reported 62 people killed and 200 wounded. The casualty figures were continuing to rise.
They estimated that the bomb contained more than 200 pounds of explosives, and it spread fire and destruction in the densely populated area. Butane gas canisters stored in a nearby apartment blew up in series of explosions after the initial blast, police said.
It was the most destructive bombing in Beirut since the truck bombings of American and French peacekeeping headquarters on Oct. 23, 1983, which killed 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 French soldiers.
No Claim of Responsibility
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bomb. Several Muslim politicians blamed Israel for the blast, as they have for other recent explosions, but produced no proof.
Salim Hoss, a Sunni Muslim politician who serves in the Lebanese Cabinet as labor and education minister, said he has "no doubt that Israel was behind this ugly crime." The Amal movement, the largest Shia Muslim militia group, also blamed Israel and vowed to "retaliate adequately soon."
The bomb went off as worshipers gathered for dusk prayers. A pall of smoke spread over the area. Four apartment buildings caught fire and dozens of cars were set ablaze.
Lebanon's government radio appealed for urgent blood donations and said that hospitals in Muslim West Beirut are unable to cope with the disaster.
The radio said the blast, in the Ghbaire district, knocked down an eight-story apartment building and severely damaged the mosque. A nearby movie theater was also damaged.
Militiamen from the radical Shia Muslim group Hezbollah (Party of God) and the Amal militia took control of the streets, firing into the air to clear the way for ambulances rushing victims to five different hospitals.
Militiamen also fired between the feet of reporters and photographers and ordered them away. Film was confiscated from some photographers.
Police said the blast left a crater three yards deep and five yards wide. The street around the explosion site was littered with rubble and the burnt hulks of several automobiles. Militiamen and rescue workers dug through the wreckage of the collapsed building for survivors and entered nearby buildings to remove the injured.
Near Cleric's Home
The blast took place within 100 yards of the home of Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who is believed to be the leader of the Hezbollah. He has denied any connection with the group that is thought to be a collection of several radical Shia organizations blamed for attacks on Westerners in Lebanon.
The state radio quoted a spokesman at Fadlallah's home as saying that he and his family were not hurt.
U.S. intelligence sources in Washington have been quoted as saying Fadlallah blessed the suicide drivers who bombed the headquarters of American and French peacekeepers in 1983. He has denied these reports.
Police quoted one witness as saying the car had been parked in front of a tire shop by a man who said he would return for it shortly.
A car bombing in the same neighborhood killed five people and injured 44 on Feb. 18.
On Feb. 1, a car bomb exploded in the northern port city of Tripoli outside a mosque that was built by Said Shaban, leader of Tawhid (the Islamic Unification Movement). Twelve people were killed and more than 50 were wounded in that blast.
Shaban's organization is a Sunni Muslim group, as opposed to Hezbollah, from the rival Shia branch of Islam.
These two main branches split shortly after the death of the prophet Mohammed in the year 632 in a dispute over who would succeed him as leader of the Islamic faith.