Tripoli: Powerful car bombs exploded yesterday outside two Sunni mosques in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, killing at least 43 people and wounding 500, according to security sources.

Speaking on television immediately after the attacks, Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said, “up to now, there are 27 martyrs”.

Both explosions took place as worshippers were filing out after weekly Muslim prayers, in a city where Sunni supporters of rebels in neighbouring Syria frequently clash with Alawites, who support the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.

The first blast hit in the city centre and was also near the home of outgoing Prime Minister Najeeb Miqati, although his office said he was not in Tripoli at the time. The second struck near the port of the restive city with a Sunni majority, close to the home of former police chief Ashraf Rifi, a security source said.

An AFP reporter saw a number of charred bodies near the Al Taqwa mosque and the bodies of five children brought out from it. Lebanese television  channels aired footage of the dead, of buildings with their fronts blown in and vehicles ablaze, as bystanders rushed to help the wounded.

The explosions come a week after a suicide car bombing killed 27 people in a Beirut stronghold of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Al Assad’s forces.

On Wednesday, army chief General Jean Kahwaji said his forces were fighting a “total war” against terrorism whose aim is “to provoke sectarian strife” in the country.
He said the army had been pursuing a “terrorist cell that prepares car bombs and sends them to residential neighbourhoods.”

He said “the gravity ... lies in the fact that this cell is not targeting any one region or community in particular, but that it aims to provoke sectarian strife by targeting different regions,” said Kahwaji.

Tripoli, on the Mediterranean coast, has seen frequent Syria-related violence over the past two years, including waves of deadly clashes.

Though Lebanon is officially neutral in Syria’s conflict, the country is deeply divided, with Hezbollah and its allies backing Assad and the opposition supporting the rebels.

A Lebanese and two Palestinians suspected of preparing a car-bomb attack were arrested days after the latest blast in Beirut, the General Security agency said.

They were accused of planning to plant a car laden with 250 kilogrammes of explosives in the Naameh area, also in southern Beirut, the agency added.