An al-Qa'ida affiliated extremist group claimed responsibility last night for twin suicide attacks on the Iranian embassy in Beirut which killed 23 people and injured dozens more.
The two blasts, one triggered by a man in a suicide vest and another by an attacker driving a car rigged with explosives, appeared to be part of a growing overspill from Syria's civil war.
The Abdullah Azzam brigades, a Lebanon-based Sunni offshoot of al-Qa'ida, claimed responsibility for the bombings, according to a statement on the Twitter feed of Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, its religious guide. It said: "It was a double martyrdom operation by two of the Sunni heroes of Lebanon.
"God bless them."
The group, named after the Palestinian cleric who was the mentor of Osama bin Laden, is one of several Lebanese militant groups that support the Sunni-majority Syrian opposition.
The embassy is in southern Beirut, an area predominantly occupied by Shia in Lebanon's fractured sectarian society.
The explosions hit the outer wall at around 9.30am, destroying the front gate and the watchtower. By late morning, 23 people had been confirmed dead and 150 were injured.
Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ansari, a Shia cleric and cultural attache to the embassy, was critically wounded, the embassy said. Residents and passers-by said a suicide bomber on a motorcycle had tried to enter the embassy's gates at speed.
When guards resisted, he blew himself up. A second, much larger blast followed shortly after, emanating from a vehicle parked nearby.
One source told reporters that the embassy believed the blasts were an assassination attempt against the ambassador, who had been due to leave for a meeting and narrowly escaped being wounded.
The force of the explosion smashed windows and ripped balconies from the six-storey apartment blocks around the compound. Rows of cars outside the embassy burst into flames and charred bodies and broken glass covered the streets.
Rabia Istanbuli, a manager for a furniture store, said: "Shards of glass fell around me. I saw residents falling from their balconies, which crumbled beneath them. I saw at least seven bodies, some of them completely burnt."
Neighbourhoods of south Beirut controlled by Hizbollah, the Shia militia, were bombed in July and August this year, assumed to be acts of retaliation against its military support for President Bashar al-Assad.
There have been regular gun battles between Sunni, Shia and Alawite groups, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli. "This is related to the Syrian war," said a passer-by who identified himself as Wasfi Berri, a relative of Nabih Berri, the long-time leader of the Shia Amal party in Lebanon and speaker of parliament. "There is chaos there and the extremist jihadists want to bring the chaos here."
In his statement, Mr Zuraiqat said the aim of the attacks was to "drag Hizbollah and Iran out of Syria" and to secure the release of its prisoners from Lebanese jails.
Mr Assad's forces have made notable gains in the past fortnight, retaking bases near Aleppo, and advancing north-west of Damascus. Sunni militants have threatened revenge on Hizbollah for sending military support, but Hassan Nasrallah, its head, said last week that his men would stay in Syria as long as necessary to "defend Lebanon, Palestine, the Palestinian question and Syria, the protector of the resistance". (© Daily Telegraph, London)