BEIRUT (AP) — A powerful car bomb tore through a bustling south Beirut neighborhood that is a stronghold of Hezbollah on Thursday, killing at least 18 and trapping dozens of others in an inferno of burning cars and buildings in the bloodiest attack yet on Lebanese civilians linked to Syria's civil war.
The blast is the second in just over a month to hit one of the Shiite militant group's bastions of support, and the deadliest in decades. It raises the specter of a sharply divided Lebanon being pulled further into the conflict next door, which is being fought on increasingly sectarian lines pitting Sunnis against Shiites.
Syria-based Sunni rebels and militant Islamist groups fighting to topple Syria's President Bashar Assad have threatened to target Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon in retaliation for intervening on behalf of his regime in the conflict.
Thursday's explosion ripped through a crowded, overwhelmingly Shiite area tightly controlled by Hezbollah, turning streets lined with vegetable markets, bakeries and shops into scenes of destruction.
Dozens of ambulances rushed to the site of the explosion and firefighters used cranes and ladders to try to evacuate terrified residents from burning buildings. Some fled to the rooftops of buildings and civil defense workers were still struggling to bring them down to safety several hours after the explosion.
The blast appeared to be an attempt to sow fear among the group's civilian supporters and did not target any known Hezbollah facility or figure.
Hezbollah's Al Manar TV and Red Cross official George Kattaneh said the death toll was at least 18 and more than 280 were wounded.
The army, in a statement, said the explosion was caused by a car bomb. It called on residents to cooperate with security forces trying to evacuate people trapped in their homes.
Syria's conflict has spilled across the border into its neighbor on multiple occasions in the past two years. Fire from Syria has hit border villages, while clashes between Lebanese factions backing different sides have left scores dead.
But direct attacks against civilian targets were rare until Hezbollah stepped up its role in Syria. Since then, its support bases in southern Beirut have been targeted. Since May, rockets have been fired at suburbs controlled by the group on two occasions, wounding four people. On July 9, a car bomb exploded in the nearby Beir al-Abed district, wounding more than 50 people.
However Thursday's explosion was much deadlier than those, and was the bloodiest single attack in south Beirut since a 1985 truck bomb assassination attempt targeting top Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in Beir al-Abed left 80 people dead.
It came despite rigorous security measure taken in the past few weeks by Hezbollah around its strongholds, setting up checkpoints, searching cars and sometimes using sniffer dogs to search for bombs. It also came a day before Hezbollah's leader was scheduled to give a major speech marking the end of the month-long 2006 war with Israel.
The explosion occurred on a commercial and residential main street in the Rweiss district, about 100 meters (yards) away from the Sayyed al-Shuhada complex where Hezbollah usually holds rallies.
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