BEIRUT — A car bomb killed at least three people and injured about two dozen Saturday in a Lebanese town close to the Syrian border, the latest deadly attack in Lebanon apparently linked to the war raging in the neighboring country.
An Al Qaeda-linked group fighting in Syria took responsibility for Saturday’s attack in the Lebanese town of Hermel.
The blast came a day after Syrian peace talks ended in Geneva with no tangible results. Heavy fighting and bombardment were reported on several fronts in Syria, including the northern city of Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus, the capital, and the southern province of Dara.
The civil war has heightened tension in Lebanon and shaken the nation’s fragile, multi-sectarian governing structure. Lebanese officials have voiced grave concern about the nation’s deteriorating security situation amid an escalating wave of car bombs.
In Saturday’s strike, a suicide attacker detonated the explosives in a gas station in Hermel, 90 miles northeast of Beirut, authorities said.
Video from the scene showed soaring flames illuminating the evening sky. As rescue workers rushed to the site, authorities worried that fuel tanks would explode and urged people to stay away from the inferno.
It was the second car bomb in Hermel in recent weeks and the fourth to strike Lebanon this year in mostly Shiite Muslim areas. All of the targeted communities strongly back Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim political and paramilitary organization. Two car bombs in January targeted residential areas of southern Beirut, a major support base for Hezbollah.
All of the bombings have targeted civilians, Lebanese authorities say.
The decision by Lebanon-based Hezbollah to send militiamen to Syria to support the government of President Bashar Assad has enraged the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting to oust Assad’s government. Some Sunni militants apparently view the attacks in Lebanon as payback.
In an Internet posting, an Al Qaeda-linked group fighting in Syria, Al Nusra Front, claimed responsibility for Saturday’s bombing. The strike illustrated the “weakness” of Hezbollah, said the group, which referred to Hezbollah as the “Party of Iran,” referring to Hezbollah’s close ties to Shiite Tehran. The statement accused Hezbollah of dispatching “mercenaries to kill the Syrian people.”
The same group took responsibility for a car bombing in Hermel last month.
Various Sunni militant factions, including several linked to Al Qaeda, have repeatedly threatened to take the war to Hezbollah’s Lebanese heartland.
Hezbollah says it has no intention of withdrawing its forces from Syria. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said repeatedly that Al Qaeda-linked groups and other armed factions fighting to topple Assad also constitute a threat to Lebanon. Hezbollah has long had an alliance with Assad’s government.
Various Lebanese political figures condemned Saturday’s attack and urged Lebanese of all sects to stand against terrorism.
“Once again the hands of treachery target a Lebanese area and do criminal acts against innocent civilians,” Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, said in a statement. “Before this tragedy we can only renew our call for all to unite so as to protect our homeland and protect our people.”
Pleas for unity from Lebanese politicians have become routine in the aftermath of the escalating series of car-bomb strikes. But Lebanon’s central government is weak and deeply divided.
Lebanon has been operating under a caretaker government for almost a year because of political disputes aggravated by the war in Syria.
Al Manar, Hezbollah’s news agency, quoted the nation’s caretaker Interior minister, Marwan Charbel, as saying that the nation’s security situation was “unstable and heading every day into the worst.”
The Lebanese military has stepped up security and thrown up additional checkpoints across the country. Hezbollah has also bolstered security measures in its areas of operation.
But thwarting determined car bombers, especially suicide attackers, is extremely difficult, experts say, as it is almost impossible to conduct a thorough check on every vehicle.
Meanwhile, violence flared across Syria a day after the peace talks in Switzerland broke off with little prospect for a political settlement to the nearly three-year-long war.
In the southern Syrian province of Dara, rebels said Saturday that they had launched a broad offensive dubbed Geneva Houran, after the site of the peace talks and the Houran plains close to the Jordanian border.
The attack, which may mark a new phase of coordination among hitherto disparate rebel groups, included “thousands of fighters” according to one rebel spokesman. The opposition reported the capture of government checkpoints and the destruction of four army tanks and a radar station.
Syria’s official media, apparently referring to that battle, said troops “confronted a terrorist attempt to attack military points and bombarded” opposition strongholds in Dara province. The state media reported that Syrian forces killed dozens of “terrorists,” the official term for armed rebels, and had overrun opposition “dens.”
Syrian authorities also cited military advances against rebels in the suburbs of Damascus and in the northern province of Aleppo, where fighting among rebel groups has helped the government make recent gains, including securing the Aleppo airport and environs.
On Saturday, the state media reported that army units destroyed “so called ... religious courts” set up by Islamist rebels in a neighborhood of Aleppo city, which has been divided between government and opposition forces for more than 18 months.
Opposition activists reported that more than a dozen civilians were killed when government aircraft dropped so-called barrel bombs — metal drums filled with explosives — on rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo. Human rights advocates and the United Nations have called on the Syrian government to cease the use of barrel bombs.
Special correspondent Bulos in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.