Residents gather around a crater caused by one of the two explosions outside one of two mosques in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli (Photo: Reuters)
Heavily armed Lebanese security forces deployed across the northern city of Tripoli on Saturday as forensic experts sifted through the rubble from twin car bombs that killed at least 47 people the day before.
The coordinated explosions Friday outside two mosques in the predominantly Sunni city raised even more the already simmering sectarian tensions in fragile Lebanon, heightening fears the country could be slipping into a cycle of revenge attacks between its Sunni and Shia communities. For many Lebanese, the bombings also were seen as the latest evidence that Syria's bloody civil war — with its dark sectarian overtones — is increasingly drawing in its smaller neighbor.
Lebanese police officials on Saturday raised the casualty toll from the bombings to 47 people killed and more than 500 wounded. Some 300 people were still in the hospital a day after the attack, 65 of them in critical condition, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
In Tripoli, armed civilians set up checkpoints on Saturday near the two mosques hit in the attacks, while Lebanese security forces patrolled the streets. A team of forensic experts was sorting through the mangled wreckage at the blast sites. Some residents used shovels and brooms to clean up shards of glass and shrapnel that littered the pavement in front of nearby shops.
The explosions were clearly intended to cause maximum civilian casualties as they struck at midday Friday outside the Taqwa and Salam mosques, which are known to be filled with worshippers at that time on the Muslim day of prayer.
Local TV stations aired footage of the frantic first moments following the explosions: bodies scattered beside burning cars, charred victims trapped in smoking vehicles, bloodied casualties emerging from thick, black smoke and people shouting and screaming as they rush victims away.
While there has been no claim of responsibility for the attacks, many here link them to the civil war next door in Syria, where a Sunni-led insurgency is fighting to oust a regime dominated by President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
The Lebanese Shia militant Hezbollah group has openly declared its guerrillas are fighting alongside Assad's forces against the Syrian rebels, who enjoy both sympathy and support from many in Lebanon's Sunni community.
Hezbollah's overt role in the Syrian civil war has sent sectarian tensions soaring in Lebanon, and street clashes have erupted on numerous occasions in recent months. Preachers at both of the mosques targeted Friday are virulent critics of both Hezbollah and Assad.
Recently, small-scale clashes have taken a turn toward Iraq-style car bombings. Just over a week ago, a car bomb targeted an overwhelmingly Shiite district south of Beirut controlled by Hezbollah, killing 27 people.