Explosion rocks Hezbollah area

Lebanese officials vow they won't be pulled into Syria war

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BEIRUT — A car bomb that injured dozens Tuesday in the urban heartland of the Hezbollah movement stirred new fears that the sectarian-fueled strife in Syria was migrating into neighboring Lebanon.

Officials from various political movements and religious groups denounced the attack -- which occurred as residents were preparing for the start of Ramadan, a Muslim month of fasting -- as an effort to sow discord in Lebanon. A fragile peace has held for almost a quarter-century, since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990. Authorities vowed what they termed a provocation would not succeed in inflaming communal conflict.

"What they're trying to do is create a sectarian division between the Sunni and Shiite," Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told reporters at the scene. "I can assure you that neither Sunnis or Shiite will be dragged into it, no matter what happens."

The blast occurred in a mostly Shiite neighborhood in southern Beirut that is a stronghold of the Hezbollah movement, a major political and paramilitary force here.

No one took responsibility for the strike, but suspicions immediately fell on Sunni militants enraged at Hezbollah's decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar Assad. Mostly Sunni rebels are fighting to oust Assad's government, and some have threatened to take their battle to Hezbollah's Lebanese homeland.

In April, one Syrian rebel group, al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, warned that Beirut would be set ablaze if Hezbollah did not withdraw its forces from Syria.

Publicly, Hezbollah officials and their allies seemed intent Tuesday on defusing the incendiary sectarian factor. They tended to blame Hezbollah's traditional enemies, Israel and the United States, for the bombing.

A Hezbollah parliamentarian, Ali Ammar, told reporters at the blast scene that the group was being targeted because of its "resistance" to Israeli and U.S. aims in the region.

Tuesday's blast in the bustling Beir al Abed district injured 53 people, most of whom suffered minor wounds, authorities said. No one was reported killed, though the bomb caused extensive damage, setting more than a dozen cars ablaze in the parking lot where it detonated and blowing out windows in nearby apartment buildings and storefronts. Authorities described the bomb as relatively small, containing less than 100 pounds of explosive material.

Spillover violence from the Syrian civil war has been on the rise in Lebanon, which is also home to more than 500,000 Syrian refugees. Many officials and observers have voiced fears that the Syrian chaos could destabilize Lebanon, upsetting the nation's delicate democratic balance. In recent weeks, political leaders have called for calm and have warned against sectarian bloodletting.