BEIRUT, Lebanon – A car bomb ripped through Beirut on Friday, killing a top security official and seven others, shearing the balconies off apartment buildings and sending bloodied residents staggering into the streets in the most serious blast the Lebanese capital has seen in four years.
Dozens of people were wounded in the attack, which the state-run news agency said targeted the convoy of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, a top security official in Lebanon.
Many Lebanese quickly raised the possibility the violence was connected to the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has sent destabilizing ripples through Lebanon for the past 19 months. Al-Hassan was in charge of an investigation that exposed a bomb plot over the summer, leading to the arrest of a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician and charges against a top Syrian regime figure.
"Whenever there is a problem in Syria they want to bring it to us," said Karin Sabaha Gemayel, a secratary at a law firm a block from the bombing site, where the street was transformed into a swath of rubble, twisted metal and charred vehicles.
"But you always hope it will not happen to us. Not again," she said.
The blast ripped through a narrow street at mid-afternoon in Beirut's mainly Christian Achrafieh neighborhood, an area packed with cafes and shops. Doors and windows were shattered for blocks, and several blackened cars appeared to have been catapulted through the air.
Bloodied residents fled their homes while others tried to help the seriously wounded. One little girl, apparently unconscious and bleeding from her head, was carried to an ambulance in the arms of rescue workers, her white sneakers stained with blood.
"I was standing nearby in Sassine Square and I heard a big explosion and I ran straight to it," resident Elie Khalil said. He said he saw at least 15 bloodied people in a nearby parking lot before medics arrived and took them to a hospital.
Lebanese security officials said eight people were killed and 60 wounded, 20 of them critically. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the press. The state-run National News Agency put the number of wounded at 78.
Health Minister Ali Hussein Khalil called on all hospitals to accept the wounded from this "terrorist bombing."
Tensions have been soaring in Lebanon over the conflict next door, and clashes have erupted between supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad and backers of the rebellion against his regime.
Syria and Lebanon share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, often causing events on one side of the border to echo on the other. Lebanon's Sunnis have tended to back Syria's mainly Sunni rebels, while Lebanon's powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement is a key ally of Assad.
Lebanon was hit by a wave of bombings and other attacks that began in 2005 with a massive suicide blast that killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri and more than 20 other people in downtown Beirut. In the following years, a string of anti-Syrian figures were assassinated, several in car bombings. Many Lebanese blamed Damascus for the killings, though Syria denied responsibility.
Al-Hassan, the official targeted Friday, had headed an investigation that led to the Aug. 9 arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Syria's most loyal allies in Lebanon who has long acted as an unofficial media adviser to Assad. According to a senior Lebanese police official, Samaha confessed to having personally transported explosives in his car from Syria to Lebanon with the purpose of killing Lebanese personalities at the behest of Syria.
A military court has since indicted Samaha and Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks inside Lebanon. Mamlouk, who was appointed recently by Assad to head Syria's National Security Bureau, was indicted in absentia.
The last massive serious bombing was in 2008, when a car bomb killed a senior Lebanese anti-terror police official who was investigating dozens of other bombings. Four others were killed and 38 wounded in the blast in the Christian Hazmieh neighborhood.
Since then, Lebanese saw a relative calm in violence. After the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, there have been sporadic gunbattles between pro- and anti-Assad factions, particularly in northern Lebanon. The divisions also tend to fall along sectarian lines, a dangerous element in a country that was torn apart by the 1975-1990 civil war.
"I'm very worried about the country after this explosion," Beirut resident Charbel Khadra said Friday. "I'm worried the explosions will return -- and this is just the first one."