Terror struck Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli on Friday when two bombs detonated minutes apart outside Sunni Muslim mosques near the end of afternoon prayers, leaving dozens dead.
The death toll from the two blasts continued to mount through the evening, with Lebanon's Health Ministry saying that 42 people had been killed and over 500 injured as hospitals issued urgent calls for blood donations.
The twin bombs were the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon and come on the heels of a massive bomb that left 27 people dead last week in a densely-inhabited Shiite-populated neighborhood in southern Beirut.
The first Tripoli bomb went off in a parking lot adjacent to the Al-Taqwa Mosque in the Al-Zahiriya neighborhood of Tripoli near the city’s Bab al-Tebbaneh, a troubled quarter that has been the focus of repeated sectarian clashes against neighboring, Alawite populated Jabal Mohsen.
Sunni cleric Salem al-Rafei, one of the city’s top Salafi figures, had been attending the Friday prayers in Al-Taqwa when the blast occurred, sources told NOW; however they added that he was not injured.
Only seven minutes after the first blast, an explosion hit the Al-Salam Mosque in the upscale Al-Mina residential district in the center of the city, leaving scenes of carnage and devastation outside.
Chilling CCTV footage from inside the Al-Salam Mosque broadcast on LBC television shows a strong blast wave rattle the mosque as people prayed during the Jumu’ah prayers that brings Muslims together for congregational worship.
Former Internal Security Forces director Ashraf Rifi—one of the top Sunni figures in Tripoli—was slightly injured by the blast at the Al-Salam Mosque, which is across the street from his home.
A prominent Tripoli official told NOW on condition of anonymity that Rifi’s hand was injured by the explosion, while his bodyguard, who was sitting next to him, had to be hospitalized after a window crashed down on his head.
Eye-witnesses told NOW that at both sites, the explosions occured minutes after a vehicle was parked adjacent to each mosque after which unidentified men left each respective vehicle.
NOW visited the site of the Al-Taqwa Mosque explosion, where rage prevailed among the hundreds of men gathered outside amid a lack of state security force presence.
Men in the crowd used overtly sectarian language, specifically describing the explosions as a “Shiite attack against Sunnis.” References to last week’s Dahiyeh bombing were also made, as were assertions of perseverance.
Bystanders directed anger particularly at the Lebanese army, which they said had “quickly appeared” at the site of the Dahiyeh bombing in order to deal with the explosion’s aftermath, but were “nowhere to be found” at the Al-Taqwa site.
Others indicated that the Lebanese army wasn’t welcome at all in the area, since it “wasn’t working on behalf of the people.“
Taking the place of the Lebanese army at the site of the Al-Taqwa explosion were non-state security forces, some of whom were dressed in olive-green garb or were donning black vests. They sported machine guns and walkie-talkies, surveying the work of the civil defense and paramedic teams on-site.
"Should we expect [Hezbollah chief Sayyed] Hassan Nasrallah to come investigate this? No one is coming. No one cares,” one man told NOW.
"At the Dahiyeh bombing, the army showed up right away and started taking care of things. No one is even here."
The army had initially entered the scene to establish a security corridor and had opened fire in the air to disperse the crowd, which only angered the gathered people who interpreted it as interference to their efforts to bring out the wounded from the house of worship.
Shortly before NOW arrived, gunshots were heard between Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, and a few rounds of fire could be heard while NOW was interviewing bystanders.
NOW also visited the Al-Mina blast site, where state security forces were deployed heavily, and tanks had closed off either side of the street.
The anger, sectarian invective, and chaos that were present at Al-Taqwa were either not present at all or under control at the Al-Salam Mosque, where the crowd was obeying security forces’ orders to clear the area.
The explosions come amid heightened sectarian tension in the country and a growing number of security incidents that have targeted Shiite areas and Hezbollah, which is fighting on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime against the mostly Sunni rebels in war torn Syria.
Lebanon’s top political figures all came out with statements calling for calm following the devastating attacks.
Figures also voiced their fear over the situation in the country, with President Michel Suleiman cutting short his trip abroad to return to Lebanon to hold meetings on Saturday.
Rifi sounded a stark warning on the state of the country, telling NOW that the explosions were foreshadowing for further violence.
"The flame has entered Lebanon and the worst is yet to come," the former ISF chief warned.
Follow live coverage of the aftermath of the Tripoli bombings here.