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Twin bombings rock mosques in Tripoli, Lebanon

By Saad Abedine and Michael Pearson, CNN
August 23, 2013 -- Updated 1711 GMT (0111 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At least 27 dead, 600 wounded in blasts, official says
  • PM designate says "the situation in Lebanon reached a very critical stage"
  • Acting prime minister, U.S. Embassy in Beirut call for calm
  • The explosions struck Friday near two mosques

(CNN) -- A pair of blasts in Lebanon, the magnitude of which have not been seen since the 1980s, is raising fears of heightening sectarian tensions.

The two powerful explosions ripped through neighborhoods near mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday.

At least 27 people died and 600 were wounded in the bombings, Lebanese Red Cross head George Kettanah said. State media reported that the toll could be much higher.

The death toll of these explosions is high compared with the political assassinations that have occurred in the past eight years in Lebanon, but the bigger fear is that civilians could become targets anywhere in the country.

Smoke is seen above people gathering outside a mosque on the site of a powerful explosion in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday, August 23. Two bombings killed dozens of people. The first blast occurred near a mosque led by a Sunni sheikh known for his links to Syrian rebels, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said. The second occurred minutes later near another mosque, close to the residence of acting Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Smoke is seen above people gathering outside a mosque on the site of a powerful explosion in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday, August 23. Two bombings killed dozens of people. The first blast occurred near a mosque led by a Sunni sheikh known for his links to Syrian rebels, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said. The second occurred minutes later near another mosque, close to the residence of acting Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Explosions near Lebanon mosques
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While the motive for the attacks was unclear, the state-run National News Agency said they appeared to target mosques run by imams with ties to Syrian rebels.

Lebanon has been the scene of increasing sectarian violence recently, including battles between supporters and opponents of the regime in Lebanon's neighbor to the east, which is currently torn by a bloody civil war.

Interactive map: Syrian civil war isn't just about Syria

The first blast occurred near the Sunni al Taqwa mosque, the National News Agency said.

The second occurred minutes later near al Salam mosque, another Sunni mosque that is close to the residence of acting Prime Minister Najib Mikati, as well as Samir Al-Jisr, a Sunni member of parliament, and the former head of the country's Internal Security Forces, Ashraf Rifi.

Rifi is despised by Hezbollah and Lebanese politicians friendly to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It was unclear whether any of those figures were targets of the attack, but the news agency said the mosques' two Salafist sheikhs were unharmed.

Mikati is not in Tripoli, the National News Agency reported.

The second blast produced a crater 5 meters (16.4 feet) across and damaged six nearby residential buildings, the news agency said. More than 60 cars were incinerated, the news agency said.

Eyewitness video posted to YouTube purporting to be of the al Taqwa blast showed thick smoke, flames and what appeared to be burning vehicles. Another video posted to Facebook showed a large plume of smoke rising into the air near what is said to be the mosque site.

CNN could not immediately confirm the authenticity of the videos.

Mikati issued a statement via Twitter condemning the bombings.

"We urge our children and brothers in Tripoli to practice self-restraint, and we pledge to them that we will always stand by them, especially during these critical times," he said.

"Tripoli and its residents he will prove once again that they are stronger than the conspiracy and will not allow the strife to undermine their resilience and their faith in God and the homeland," the acting prime minister tweeted.

Tammam Salam, the man designated to become Lebanon's next prime minister, cut short a private trip to Greece after the explosions.

"The crime of Tripoli is further evidence that the situation in Lebanon reached a very critical stage and requires us to be on high alert on the political, national and security levels in order to eradicate the internal strife, and we have to deal with the political decisions in the country with the highest degree of national responsibility," he said in a prepared statement.

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut also condemned the violence and called on Twitter for "calm & restraint."

Hezbollah also condemned the attacks, saying in a statement that the explosions were part of a "criminal scheme aimed at sowing seeds of strife among the Lebanese."

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group, is active in southern Lebanon and has been sending its fighters to Syria to help the government there.

A car bombing in a southern suburb of Beirut this month rocked a Hezbollah stronghold, killing at least 22 people and injuring hundreds.

CNN's Nada Husseini contributed to this report.

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