Suicide bombers have struck at the main gate of Iran's embassy in Beirut, killing dozens of people. Responsibility has been claimed by jihadist rebels in what appears to be a proxy attack linked to Syria's civil war.
Suicide bombers devastated a stronghold suburb of Shiite movement Hezbollah in Lebanon's capital on Tuesday by detonating bombs outside Iran's embassy. Iran is a sponsor of Hezbollah and a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Lebanon's health ministry said 23 people were killed and 146 were wounded in the twin blasts in Beirut's suburb of Janah. Iranian officials said the embassy's cultural attaché was among those "critically wounded."
Tuesday's attack, which damaged surrounding buildings and left other cars ablaze, followed two other fatal car bombings in Hezbollah bastions in Beirut in July and August.
Responsibility was claimed on Tuesday by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qaida-linked Sunni rebel group active in neighboring Syria.
Its web posting said the group would continue attacks until Hezbollah withdrew its forces from Syria. The claim could not be independently verified.
In recent weeks, Hezbollah fighters have backed Assad's troops in retaking a string of rebel-held towns inside Syria.
Appeal for dialogue
Germany, Britain and France, whose President Francois Hollande has just ended a Middle East trip, condemned the bombings.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said: "All political forces in Lebanon were called upon to engage in dialogue and readiness to compromise so as to strengthen the political stability [of Lebanon] and to prevent a spread of the civil-war in neighboring Syria."
The United Nations hopes to convene Syrian peace talks in mid-December after a series of delays.
Lebanese security officials and witnesses said Tuesday's first blast was caused by a motorcyclist who detonated 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of explosives at the Iranian embassy's main gate.
Less than two minutes later, a four-wheel-drive vehicle rigged with about 50 kilograms of explosives detonated 40 meters away from the entrance after its approach was blocked by a small car.
State media in Tehran said an Iranian national working as an embassy guard was also among those killed.
Iran's ambassador to Beirut, Ghazanfar Rokn-Abadi said all staff inside the embassy during the blasts had escaped physical harm.
An unnamed Lebanese security source quoted by the German news agency DPA said: "This is clearly a security breach for Hezbollah and their allies the Iranians."
Accusations and denials
Syrian state television attributed the attack to what it called the "odor of petrodollars" - an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which back Syria's uprising.
In remarks carried by Iran's official news agency IRNA, Iran's foreign ministry accused Israel and "mercenaries" of being behind the double blasts.
Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbis, speaking in Jerusalem, said his country "was not involved in the past and was not involved here."
"The bloodshed in Beirut is a result of Hezbollah's involvement in the Syria crisis," he said.
Last week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said his movement would not withdraw its forces from Syria.
Many Lebanese Sunni Muslims back Syria's Sunni-dominated opposition which has battled Assad's forces for 32 months.
Tuesday's bombings coincided with a claim by Syria's miltiary that its troops captured the village of Qara in the mountainous Qalamoun region, north of Damascus and on Lebanon's eastern border.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that since last Friday at least 6,000 people have fled from Qara to the Lebanese frontier town of Arsal.
ipj/ph (AFP, AP, dpa)