Bomb Blast Rocks Beirut

A large bomb exploded in the heart of Beirut’s Christian section on Friday, upending cars, ripping into apartment buildings, shattering windows and spreading panic in a city where memories of sectarian violence from Lebanon’s long civil war have been resurrected by the conflict in neighboring Syria.

Civil Defense officials said at least eight people were killed and 80 wounded in the explosion, the most serious bombing to hit Beirut in at least four years.

The identities of the dead were not immediately clear, and there was no word on who was behind the blast, which the authorities said had been caused either by a car bomb or a bomb hidden in the street or under a vehicle parked in the affluent Sassine area, about two blocks from a gleaming shopping center. It exploded during midafternoon just as the school day was ending.

Suspicion quickly fell on groups aligned with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the embattled leader who has long been an influential political force in Lebanon and is close with Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Lebanese organization that is a powerful faction in Lebanon’s own complex web of politics. The offices of two Lebanese political groups that oppose Mr. Assad, the Christian Phalange Party and the March 14 alliance, are in the same area as the blast site.

“It is clear that the Syrian regime is responsible for such an explosion,” said Nadim Gemayel, a member of parliament and senior member of the Phalange Party, whose father, Bashir, was assassinated in an explosion at party headquarters in 1982 just a few weeks after he had been elected president. “It is such a big explosion that only the Syrian regime could have planned it.”

Terraces on apartment buildings were sheared off by the force of the blast, which shattered glass on structures several blocks away. One car’s blackened and ripped hulk appeared to have been thrown on top of another. Shutters were askew on a traditional Lebanese house across the narrow street. Fire trucks, ambulances, police and soldiers crowded the neighborhood.

A number of politicians reacted to the news by pleading that Lebanon not get dragged into tit-for-tat killings or a return to the sectarian conflict that convulsed this Mediterranean seaside city during the 1975-1991 civil war.

“We are all Lebanese,” said Mouen al-Mourabi, a member of parliament who has accused Hezbollah of sending fighters into Syria to help Mr. Assad’s forces crush the 19-month-old uprising against him. Mr. Mourabi stopped short of accusing Hezbollah of complicity in the bombing, but said many Lebanese have long feared the Syria conflict would spread to Lebanon. “There’s always a danger,” he said. “They’re trying to drag Lebanon toward this.”

The explosion shook the neighborhood just before 3 p.m., sending black smoke rising over the Sassine area, a wealthy shopping and residential district. Beirut cellphones were jammed as people spread the news.

Civil Defense officers who rushed to the scene picked pieces of flesh off a security fence and put them into plastic bags. Wounded people, many of them elderly residents of the neighborhood, were emerging from houses, sobbing. One woman walked in a bloodied nightgown.

In an upstairs apartment near the blast, Lily Nameh, 73, said she had been taking a nap with her husband, Ghaleb. “I thought it was an earthquake,” she said. “Suddenly everything was falling on us.” Her husband said “It felt like a plane landed on the building.”At The Sporting Club, a gathering place for business people and wealthy residents near the beach, word of the blast interrupted a hazy and unseasonably hot afternoon and many beachgoers immediately left.

The physical scars of the civil war that tore apart Beirut are hardly evident today in the vibrant districts of Ashrafiyeh in the largely Christian east and Hamra in the largely Muslim west. Once strongholds of Christian and Muslim factions, they are now usually peaceful areas full of pubs and restaurants where Lebanese mix freely. But vestiges of the divisions remain evident with posters of the leaders of each sect killed over the years in political violence.