BEIRUT — The family of a man who was killed this week in the deadliest car bombing to hit Lebanon’s capital in decades said Friday that it would wait for orders from Hezbollah’s leadership before seeking revenge on Syrian rebels.
In turn, Hezbollah’s top leader responded to the developments with an eye-for-an-eye speech that suggested more cross-border involvement in the bloodshed that’s overwhelmed Syria.
It was a bracing sign that Thursday’s attack threatens to return Beirut and other parts of Lebanon to the violent chaos that ripped the country apart from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, stoked now by sectarian vengeance leaking across the border from the protracted Syrian civil war.
Hamad Maqdad, a Hezbollah fighter who ran a well-digging company, died Thursday when a car exploded across from his house. The blast, which killed at least 23 other people and wounded hundreds, harked back to the Lebanese civil war that ended in 1990.
A previously little-known group, the Brigades of Aisha, took responsibility for the blast. The outfit claimed that the attack was in retaliation for Hezbollah’s support for the regime in Syria as it battles primarily Sunni Muslim rebels in the neighboring country’s civil war.
“We will take our revenge as a family and as Shiite,” said Issa Maqdad, a Hezbollah fighter who’s a relative of the dead man. He placed blame on Sunnis with ties to Syrian rebels.
He spoke as dozens of armed men from the Maqdad family gathered across from a small mosque in southern Beirut. The scene was filled with crying and the firing of weapons into the air in a display of rage that mimicked much of the sentiment across heavily Shiite Muslim south Beirut.
“You see us. We are all gunmen here, but we are disciplined,” said Abu Rida, a military commander for Hezbollah and the Maqdad family. “We will wait for (Hezbollah chief) Hasan Nasrallah to tell us what the next move is. But we will get our revenge.”
In an effort to head off the numerous calls for revenge, Lebanese security officials announced on Friday the arrests of several men in connection with Thursday’s bombing as well as for a car bombing in July that wounded dozens.
One Syrian man arrested last month has said he helped prepare a series of booby-trapped vehicles and car bombs for use in attacks, security officials told local media.
Hezbollah security officials said a suicide bomber in a black BMW sedan carried out Thursday’s attack after the militant Shiite group’s security men tried to stop the vehicle to search it amid an ongoing security crackdown in southern Beirut.
“I watched the security tape,” said one commander responsible for security in a nearby neighborhood. He spoke anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters. “Our boys were chasing him and told him to get out of the car and when he did, he detonated the bomb.”
The commander said the Hezbollah security team was killed in the blast.
Tensions have been rising steadily in Lebanon as the Syrian civil war has taken on an increasingly sectarian nature. A predominately Sunni, and increasingly Islamist, rebellion is attempting to wrest power from Hezbollah’s key ally in Damascus. With many Lebanese Sunnis supportive of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and suspicious of Hezbollah’s expansive power in Lebanon, violence between the communities has become increasingly commonplace.
As night fell Friday, Nasrallah began to address his followers on a video from a previously planned ceremony celebrating the 2006 war with Israel. After a speech about the war, Nasrallah turned to the bombing and taunted the attackers as cowards.
“You can’t confront us face to face,” he said. “These bombings are neither the beginning of the battle nor the end of the battle.”
Fervent Hezbollah supporters weathered steaming temperatures and a long afternoon sitting in a field near the Israeli border to watch a video feed of the speech. Nasrallah cannot safely appear in public.
“We know the names of the men who planted this bomb,” Nasrallah said, describing those behind the bombing as a group of “Palestinians, Syrians and, unfortunately, Lebanese.”
If the bombings were intended to discourage Hezbollah from involvement in the Syrian war, Nasrallah said, they didn’t work.
“If we have 1,000 fighters in Syria, then I will double it. If we have 5,000, then it will be 10,000. I will go and fight in Syria myself,” he shouted as celebratory gunfire echoed through the streets of southern Beirut.
His words found an eager audience.
“He just opened the door wide,” a Hezbollah commander who was watching the speech said with a grin. “He went all the way with this.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.