TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Car bombs exploded outside two Sunni mosques in this northern Lebanese city Friday as many worshipers were just finishing prayers, killing dozens of people and wounding hundreds in a country already deeply unsettled by the conflict in neighboring Syria.
The double bombing was the first time that mosques were targets in what had been an escalating series of attacks in Lebanon in recent months. Coupled with the sectarian overtones of the Syrian war and renewed fighting in Iraq — where at least 36 people were reported killed Friday in sectarian attacks across the country — the bombings compounded fears that the Middle East could be plunging into unbridled Sunni vs. Shiite warfare.
President Michel Suleiman cut short a visit abroad to meet with security officials on the double blast and exhorted them to "deploy their efforts to reveal the perpetrators and the instigators." Lebanon's prime minister-designate, Tammam Salam, said in a statement that "the Tripoli crime is an additional indicator that the situation in Lebanon has reached a very dangerous level."
Witnesses and Lebanese media said the double blast hit the Taqwa and Al-Salam mosques, which are on opposite sides of the city, minutes apart just before 2 p.m. Tripoli's mayor, Nader Ghazal, was quoted as saying at least 50 people were killed, while the Health Ministry put the death toll at 35. The Lebanese Red Cross said more than 500 were wounded.
The toll easily surpassed the casualties and destruction from a bombing a week earlier in southern Beirut that had targeted Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that has aligned with Syria's government against a Sunni-led insurgency, which has contributed to an increasing polarization in Lebanon.
The first car bomb hit about 50 yards from the gates of the Taqwa mosque, setting dozens of cars and a nearby building on fire and shattering the windows of surrounding buildings. The blast snapped the trunks of palm trees and left a crater in the street that punctured a water main, flooding the street. On the roof of the mosque's entryways sat the remains of a blown up car that people nearby at the time said had contained the bomb.
The second blast near the Al-Salam mosque blasted a 6-foot-deep hole in the asphalt and shattered the windows of apartment towers down the block.
Both explosions struck just before the conclusion of Friday prayer, the largest gathering of the week for Muslims. Many people said that if the bombs had detonated when they were leaving the mosques, the death toll would have been much higher.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility, but the Taqwa mosque was where Sheik Salem al-Rafei, an outspoken Sunni preacher, had inveighed against Hezbollah and had exhorted worshipers to support the Sunni insurgency trying to topple Syria's president, Bashar Assad.
Al-Rafei was not hurt in the bombing, worshipers said, but efforts to contact him were not immediately successful.
Denying responsibility, Hezbollah condemned the bombing.
"These two terrorist explosions come as a translation of the criminal plot that seeks to sow the seeds of discord among the Lebanese and drag the country to internal strife under the headline of sectarianism and religious differences," the group said in a statement. Accusing unnamed foreign forces of backing the attacks, it said such mayhem benefited "the evil regional international plan that wants to break up our region and drown it in oceans of blood and fire."
While Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has made it clear that it is committed to backing Assad's government, he has told his supporters that Hezbollah is not fighting Sunnis in general, but the extremists among them and not to blame all Sunnis for attacks on Shiites.
Nasrallah's assertions seemed to carry little weight with aggrieved survivors in the Tripoli attacks. "Nasrallah is the first suspect in this bombing," said Ahmed Johar, who was among groups of men removing damaged furniture from the Al-Salam mosque and sweeping shattered glass and splintered wood that covered the green carpet.
Samir Jalloul, 39, said he had been in the mosque near the end of his prayers when the explosion hit. His head was wounded by flying debris.
"I expected that there would be bombings, but not at a mosque during prayers," he said.