Lebanese city of Tripoli rocked by deadly explosions

The BBC's Yolande Knell: "The explosions took place close to mosques just as they were full of worshippers"

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At least 42 people have been killed and more than 400 wounded in two huge bomb attacks in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli.

The blasts, near mosques, are thought to be the deadliest attack in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990.

War in neighbouring Syria has raised sectarian tensions between the city's Sunni Muslim and Alawite communities.

The blasts came a week after a car bomb in a Shia district of the capital Beirut killed 27 people.

Prominent Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Salem Rafii could have been the intended target of the latest attacks, BBC Arabic reports from Beirut. He was unharmed.

Analysis

Local television channels here are showing dramatic security camera footage from inside the al-Salam mosque. At 12:16, as worshippers were sitting quietly inside listening to the preacher, a powerful explosion shakes the building.

Since the uprising against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, there has been concern that violence could spill across the border and exacerbate Lebanon's sectarian divisions.

Now there is growing evidence that is happening.

The latest attacks will increase tensions in Tripoli between the Sunni Muslim majority, which supports opposition fighters in Syria, and its Alawite community that remains loyal to the Syrian president.

These blasts come exactly a week after a bombing in southern Beirut killed more than 20 people. The suburbs hit in that attack were a stronghold of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, that is also allied with the Syrian government.

These are worrying times for the Lebanese.

The cleric is opposed to Lebanon's militant Shia Hezbollah group and has previously urged young Lebanese men to join opposition fighters in Syria.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the attacks and called for calm and restraint. Meanwhile the UN Security Council called for "people to preserve national unity".

The first bomb hit the al-Taqwa mosque shortly after Friday prayers ended. Minutes later, the second blast struck the al-Salam mosque in the Mina area.

It is not clear if Sheikh Salem Rafii was at the al-Taqwa mosque, although some reports say he was giving a sermon.

In a TV interview after the blast he called for restraint. "We do not want to destroy the country. We want to safeguard the country and preserve Tripoli and its people," he said.

"We should not rush towards reacting. God willing, there is enough time to hold consultations, investigate the matter and know the results."

'Like an earthquake'

Ambulances rushed to the scene of the blasts and a pall of black smoke covered the area.

"It was as if there was an earthquake, the whole city seemed to be shaking," a local resident told Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper.

Television pictures showed cars on fire and people trying to carry the wounded to safety.

Bodies could be seen on the ground and windows were broken on surrounding apartment blocks.

A general view outside one of two mosques hit by explosions in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli on August 23, 2013. It shows the windows blown out. The front of this mosque was destroyed and the windows of nearby buildings were smashed
A man reacts outside one of two mosques hit by explosions in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, August 23, 2013 People ran through the streets as they tried to help people hit by the blasts
Lebanese army soldiers stand next to crater caused by an explosion outside of a mosque in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday Aug 23, 2013. A huge crater was blown in the ground
Lebanese citizens gather at the site of an explosion outside of a mosque in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday Aug 23, 2013. Plumes of black smoke filled the air

The preacher at the al-Salam mosque - the site of the second explosion - is also an opponent of the Syrian government and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, Associated Press reports.

No group has said it carried out the latest attacks.

Syria crisis spills into Lebanon

  • May 2012: Fighting between pro and anti-Assad groups in Tripoli and Beirut leave many dead
  • August 2012: Deadly sectarian clashes break out in Tripoli
  • October 2012: Several people killed in gunfights after the assassination of top security official General Wissam al-Hassan, a Sunni opponent of Damascus
  • May 2013: At least 15 people die in another round of sectarian violence in Tripoli
  • June 2013: At least 17 soldiers killed in clashes with supporters of radical Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in the southern city of Sidon
  • 9 July 2013: A car bomb wounds dozens in a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut
  • 15 August 2013: A car bomb kills 27 people and injures hundreds more in a Shia area of south Beirut
  • 23 August 2013: More than 40 people killed and 400 injured in two blasts outside mosques in Tripoli

In a statement reported by Lebanon's National News Agency, Hezbollah strongly condemned the blasts.

The group said the attacks aimed to "sow seeds of strife among the Lebanese and drag them into bickering under a sectarian guise".

Outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Suleiman also condemned the attacks, calling on citizens to unite against violence.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "The secretary-general calls on all Lebanese to exercise restraint, to remain united, and to support their state institutions... in maintaining calm and order in Tripoli and throughout the country, and in preventing the recurrence of such destructive actions."

In a statement, the UN Security Council "appealed to all Lebanese people to preserve national unity in the face of attempts to undermine the country's stability".

The council "stressed the importance for all Lebanese parties to... refrain from any involvement in the Syrian crisis".

Tripoli, a city of nearly 200,000 people and Lebanon's second largest, is one of the country's most volatile sectarian fault lines, with a small Alawite population living in the midst of a Sunni majority.

The Alawite community tends to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Sunnis mostly backing the rebels fighting him.

The bombs come a week after a massive car bomb rocked a Shia district of Beirut, leaving 27 people dead. The area hit contained Hezbollah strongholds.

Map shows al-Salaam mosque and al-Taqwa mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli

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