BEIRUT • Lebanon was in mourning yesterday after 44 people were killed in south Beirut in a double suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the bloodiest such attack in years.
The Red Cross said at least 239 people were wounded, several in critical condition, in the blasts on Thursday that hit a busy shopping street in Burj al-Barajneh, a neighbourhood where the Shi'ite Hizbollah movement is popular.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam held an emergency meeting with his security Cabinet and military chiefs yesterday after the blasts, the latest spillover of violence from the war in neighbouring Syria.
Meanwhile, families prepared to collect the bodies of their loved ones from hospitals as the country observed a day of national mourning. Schools were closed, and politicians across the fractured political spectrum condemned the attack.
The first attacks in more than a year on a Hizbollah bastion inside Lebanon came at time when the group is stepping up its involvement in Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year.
Iran-backed Hizbollah has sent troops over the border to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni Muslim insurgent groups, including ISIS.
Lebanon's army said the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers, and that the body of a third who failed to detonate his explosive device was found at the scene of the second blast.
But ISIS gave a different version in a statement claiming responsibility for the attack. It said "soldiers of the caliphate" first detonated explosives planted on a motorbike on the street. "After the apostates gathered in the area, one of the knights of martyrdom detonated his explosive belt in the midst of them," the statement added.
One witness told local television: "When the second blast went off, I thought the world had ended."
The army set up a heavy security presence around the scene of the blast, which was littered with debris, damaged cars and motorbikes and shattered glass yesterday.
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi said after the security meeting that there was "complete trust" in the security forces to maintain relative calm in the country, which suffered its own civil war from 1975 to 1990.
Beirut residents expressed concern after the violence, saying it raised the spectre of civil strife. "It's been a year... with no explosions. We thought we were done with this, but were proved wrong," said a Ms Rajaa, who gave only her first name. "This explosion targeted Lebanon as a whole, not only Beirut's southern suburbs," she said.
Another resident, Mr Mahmoud Hammoud, was resolute: "Every time we have another martyr, our nation becomes stronger," he said.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon urged Lebanon's security services and state institutions "not to allow this despicable act to destroy the relative calm that has prevailed in the country over the past year".
And the White House pledged to support the country as it worked to "bring those responsible for this attack to justice".
Hizbollah's political opponents in Lebanon also condemned the attacks. Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri, who leads the Future Movement, said the attack was "cowardly... and unjustified" in postings on his Twitter account.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE