BEIRUT — An explosion tore through a crowded commercial street Thursday in a south Beirut neighborhood that is bastion of support for the Shiite group Hezbollah, killing at least five people, setting cars ablaze and sending a column of black smoke above the Beirut skyline.
It was the latest in a wave of attacks to hit Lebanon in recent months as the civil war in Syria increasingly spills over into its smaller neighbor. The violence has targeted both Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, further stoking sectarian tensions that are already running high as each community in Lebanon lines up with its brethren in Syria on opposing sides of the war.
The Lebanese army said 44 pounds of explosives were placed in a dark green SUV. It said authorities were investigating how the explosives were ignited.
Lebanon's official National News Agency said at least five people were killed and more than 50 wounded in the explosion, which left the mangled wreckage of cars in the street and blew out the windows of store fronts. The director of the Bahman Hospital, where dozens of the wounded were taken, said some of the injured were in critical condition.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV said the explosion occurred "a few hundred meters (yards) from the politburo of Hezbollah." It said the political office was not the target of the attack. Hezbollah's deputy chief Sheik Naim Kassim told al-Manar that the blast was aimed at "the whole of Lebanon."
"Suddenly, the whole area went bright and we started running away," Ali Oleik, an accountant who works in a nearby office building, told the Associated Press. "I saw two bodies on the street, one of a woman and another of a man on a motorcycle who was totally deformed."
The explosion occurred a week after a car bombing in downtown Beirut killed prominent Sunni politician Mohammed Chatah. The former finance minister and top aide to ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri was critical of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Hezbollah allies.
Hezbollah's once seemingly impenetrable bastion of support — Beirut's southern suburbs — also has been hit several times in recent months.
In November, suicide bombers targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing at least 23 people. Iran is the chief patron of Hezbollah and an ally of Syria, and the Islamic Republic's embassy is located in a Hezbollah district.
Another blast in August killed around 20 people in the Beir al-Abed district, near the Haret Hreik neighborhood where Thursday's bombing took place.
Two weeks later, a double bombing outside two Sunni mosques in the northern city of Tripoli killed scores more.
The attacks raise the specter of a sharply divided Lebanon being pulled further into the Syrian conflict, which is being fought on increasingly sectarian lines pitting Sunnis against Shiites. Syria-based Sunni rebels and militant Islamist groups fighting to topple Assad have threatened to target Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon in retaliation for intervening on behalf of his regime in the conflict.