BEIRUT (AP) — Twin suicide bombings struck a southern Beirut suburb that’s a stronghold of the Shiite Hezbollah group on Thursday evening, killing at least 37 people and wounding scores more in one of the deadliest attacks in years in Lebanon.
The attack was quickly claimed by the extremists Islamic State group, which is fighting in Syria and Iraq but has until now not had a recognized affiliate in Lebanon, though the tiny Mediterranean country has in the past years faced deadly spillovers from the civil war next door.
The explosions hit minutes apart during rush hour in an area of southern Beirut called Burj al-Barajneh, a stronghold of the militant Hezbollah group. Hezbollah has been fighting in Syria along with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. The area has been hit in the past and Sunni militant groups have threatened to carry out more such attacks.
Along with the 37 killed, the attack also left more than 180 wounded, George Kittaneh, head of the Lebanese Red Cross operations, told state-run National News Agency.
It was not immediately clear how many attackers were involved. According to a Lebanese security official, the first suicide attacker detonated his explosives’ vest outside a Shiite mosque, while the second blew himself up inside a nearby bakery.
An apparent third attacker was found dead, his legs blown off while he still wore an intact explosives’ belt, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. The official speculated that the third may have been killed from the explosion of the second suicide bomber, as he was reportedly close to that blast.
The Al-Mayadeen TV also reported there was a third would-be suicide attacker, and showed a video of a bearded young man who wore an explosives’ belt. The report said he was killed before he was able to detonate his explosives.
Hospitals in southern Beirut were calling on people to donate blood and appealed on residents not to gather at the hospital gates so that ambulanced and emergency staff could work unhindered.
Shortly after the explosions, ambulances rushed to the area and started evacuating the wounded and the dead as Lebanese troops and Hezbollah gunmen cordoned the area, preventing anyone from getting close to the sites of the blasts, less than 50 meters (yards) apart.
“There is a massacre inside and we will not let you take photos,” a Hezbollah member screamed at an Associated Press photographer at the scene shortly after the explosions. An hour later, ambulance sirens could still be heard in Beirut streets.
Hezbollah also called on people to leave all coffee shops in the area, which are usually packed with people, and urged residents to inform the group about any suspicious moves.
The Islamic State group posted its claim of responsibility for the bombings on social media pages linked to the Sunni militant group. The claim could not be independently verified but it was similar to other IS claims.
IS said the attack was carried out by detonating an explosives-laden motorcycle close to a gathering of Shiites — a likely reference to the mosque — and followed by a suicide bomber wearing an explosives vest. The statement made no mention of a third would-be bomber.
“Let the Shiite apostates know that we will not rest until we take revenge in the name of the Prophet (Muhammad),” the IS claim said.
This is the second attack to date that has been claimed by the IS in Beirut, after a January 2014 bombing in the district of Haret Hreik, also a Shiite neighborhood in the Lebanese capital, according to the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks militant messaging on the Internet.
Syria’s civil war has spilled over into Lebanon on multiple occasions, inflaming sectarian tensions between the country’s Sunnis and Shiites and leaving scores dead.
The Lebanese Sunni and Shiite communities have lined up on opposing side of Syria’s civil war — Sunnis broadly support the Sunni rebels fighting against Assad while the Shiites typically back Assad.
Lebanon also hosts more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees — equivalent to a quarter of the country’s entire population.