BEIRUT (AP) — An al-Qaida-linked group claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings that struck outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on Tuesday, killing 23 people, including an Iranian diplomat.
The obscure Abdullah Azzam Brigades said it carried out the midmorning bombings in a southern Beirut Hezbollah stronghold — the latest strike in the proxy battles that have played out in the region for decades and now intensified with the civil war next door in Syria. Attacks have targeted Hezbollah strongholds in recent months in what many see as retaliation by Sunni extremists for the Shiite group's role in the fighting in Syria, now in its third year.
The authenticity of the claim could not be independently verified but it was posted on a militant website and on the Twitter account of Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a prominent Islamic militant leader.
The group said it will continue with such attacks until the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group withdraws its forces from Syria, where the group is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's forces against the mostly Sunni rebels seeking to topple him.
A Lebanese security official said the first suicide attacker was on a motorcycle that carried two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of explosives. He blew himself up at the large black main gate of the Iranian mission, damaging the three-story facility, the official said.
Less than two minutes later, a second suicide attacker driving a car rigged with 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives struck about 10 meters (yards) away, the official said. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Shiite Iran has long played a central role in Syria as the main Mideast backer of President Bashar Assad's government, and Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters have aided Assad's forces in battling the largely Sunni rebels seeking to topple him. Sunni Gulf Arab powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar are chief backers of the insurgency in Syria.
Iranian Ambassador Ghazanfar Roknabadi identified the dead diplomat as Sheik Ibrahim Ansari. Speaking to Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV from inside the embassy compound, he said Ansari took his post in Lebanon a month ago and was overseeing all regional cultural activities. Al-Manar reported that the street targeted by the suicide bombers includes a building where some of the Iranian diplomats and their families live.
An unidentified Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman blamed Israel for the attacks while Hezbollah and Syrian officials indirectly blamed Saudi Arabia.
"Each of the terrorist attacks that strike in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq reek of petrodollars," a Syrian government statement said, in a clear reference to oil-rich Gulf Arab countries that have sided with the Syrian rebels.
At the scene, puddles of blood stained the ground, amid broken branches scattered from the blasts' force. A woman in a black robe and headscarf, unable to stand, clutched a man, pleading with security forces for help.
"Nader," she wailed, crying out a man's name. "Nader is missing." Another man ran from the area, carrying a South Asian migrant worker limp in his arms.
"People aren't sacred anymore. We aren't safe," said a mechanic whose store windows were shattered by the blasts. He declined to be identified because he did not want to be seen as involved in sectarian tensions that have split the Lebanese over Syria's conflict.
"People fight outside (Lebanon), but send their messages through Lebanon. With bombs. It's their SMS service," he added.
Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said the twin explosions killed 23 people and wounded 146.
Debris was scattered on the street and cars were on fire as people ran away from the chaotic scene. AP video showed firefighters extinguishing flames from vehicles, blood-spattered streets and bodies covered with sheets on the ground. A charred motorcycle stood outside the embassy gate.
An armed guard at the embassy told AP that the first blast was believed to have been carried out by a suicide attacker who rode a motorcycle and blew himself up outside the gate. The guard, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media, said the other explosion, which caused much more damage, was likely a car bomb.
Lebanese security officials confirmed the two bombings were both suicide attacks. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
"We tell those who carried out the attack, you will not be able to break us," Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Mikdad told Al-Mayadeen TV. "We got the message and we know who sent it and we know how to retaliate."
Hezbollah's Al-Rasoul al-Azam hospital called on people to donate blood, saying they need all blood types.
Iran has been one of Assad's strongest supporters, supplying him with money and weapons since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011.
Previous large-scale attacks targeting Hezbollah strongholds include an Aug. 15 car bombing in the southern Beirut suburbs that killed 27 people and wounded more than 300. A less powerful car bomb targeted the same area on July 9, wounding more than 50 people.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.