Car bomb wounds 15 in Shi'ite Beirut suburb: Army source

BEIRUT (AFP) - A car bomb on Tuesday rocked Beirut's southern suburbs, wounding at least 15 people in the stronghold of Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement, television reports and a military source said.

The blast comes amid spiralling tension in Lebanon over the civil war raging in neighbouring Syria, where Hezbollah fighters have joined President Bashar al-Assad's forces in facing down a revolt by mainly Sunni rebels.

"A car bomb exploded near a commercial cooperative called the Islamic Cooperation Centre in Bir al-Abed," which lies in the heart of Hezbollah's Beirut stronghold, the military source said.

He gave a toll of 15 people wounded, one of them seriously.

The densely populated Bir al-Abed neighbourhood is home mainly to Shi'ite Muslims.

Several broadcasters, among them Hezbollah's Al-Manar, showed firefighters battling several blazes while large clouds of black smoke billowed into the sky.

A witness said the explosion was "huge".

"Everyone started panicking. Everyone was running left and right" after the blast, said Carole Mansour, who owns a shoe shop near the affected area.

"The smoke was so (thick)," Mansour said, adding that Hezbollah members dressed in civilian clothing were quick to deploy around the site of the blast.

"I started following the sounds of the screams of people. My employees ran to the site to try to see what was happening because they have relatives there," she added.

"I can't believe someone would do this on the first day of Ramadan," said Mansour, referring to the Muslim holy fasting month.

Some Shi'ites started their fasting on Tuesday, although other Shi'ites and Sunnis will begin fasting either Wednesday or Thursday.

Lebanese politicians from across the spectrum quickly condemned the blast, including President Michel Sleiman.

Officially neutral in Syria's conflict, Lebanon is deeply divided into pro- and anti-Assad camps.

Hezbollah and its allies back Assad, who adheres to the Alawite offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, while the Sunni-led opposition supports rebels seeking his ouster.