Twin suicide bombings target Iran centre in Beirut
A double suicide car bombing targeted an Iranian cultural centre in Beirut on Wednesday, killing at least four people in the latest attack linked to the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
The attack was quickly claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a jihadist group inspired by Al-Qaeda which previously claimed a double suicide bombing aimed at Iran's embassy in Beirut.
Jihadists have carried out a string of attacks in Lebanon targeting both Iran and the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which provide vital support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime as it battles a Sunni-led rebellion.
Lebanon's army confirmed the attack was a double suicide car bombing, and Health Minister Wael Abu Faour said four people were killed and 103 wounded.
The explosions sent a large plume of smoke over the area and caused widespread damage.
Emergency teams carried wounded people away from a charred street strewn with rubble, as local residents armed with fire extinguishers helped firefighters put out blazes.
The arms of a wounded man hung limply off the sides of a yellow stretcher as he was carried from the scene.
- Children among the wounded -
"I was driving my car with my wife to the university when we were hit by the force of the blast and I found pieces of human flesh on my face," Yousef al-Tawil, a professor at the Lebanese University, told AFP.
Dozens of children at a nearby orphanage witnessed the explosion, with some sustaining cuts and crying, bewildered in the chaotic aftermath.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an Al-Qaeda-inspired group, claimed the "double martyrdom operation" on its Twitter account and pledged to continue its attacks against Iran and "its party" -- a reference to Hezbollah.
"We will continue... to target Iran and its party in Lebanon, in its security and political and military centres, until our demands are achieved," the group said.
"First: that the Party of Iran withdraws its forces from Syria. Second, that our prisoners are released from Lebanese prisons."
Hezbollah acknowledged last year that it has dispatched forces to bolster Assad's troops against a Sunni-dominated uprising that began in March 2011.
The group says its involvement is necessary to protect Lebanon from Sunni extremists, but critics accuse it of embroiling Lebanon in its neighbour's conflict.
- Challenge for new government -
Sunni extremist groups have said they will target Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, until it withdraws from Syria, and the Shiite group has seen its strongholds hit in multiple bomb attacks that have killed civilians.
Last November, the Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing that killed at least 25 people at the Iranian embassy in Beirut, also in the Bir Hassan district.
Other attacks have targeted the southern suburbs of Beirut and the eastern town of Hermel, where Hezbollah commands widespread support.
Wednesday's bombings are evidence of the challenges facing Lebanon's new government, formed over the weekend after a 10-month political vacuum.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the attack, saying it was a "message reflecting the determination of the forces of evil to harm Lebanon and its children and sow discord."
"The message has been received and we will respond to it with solidarity and committment to civil accord and rallying around our army and our security forces," he said in a statement.
Interior Minister Nuhad Mashnuq echoed the message on a visit to the scene of the bombing, urging all political parties to support the army in its efforts to prevent attacks.
"On Lebanese territory, it is the responsibility of all political forces to cooperate to put an end to regions that are beyond the law," he said.