A massive car bomb exploded near the home of a Shiite Moslem leader in a crowded Beirut suburb today, killing at least 60 persons and wounding about 200 others.
The explosion left a 3-by-5-yard crater in the street and shattered the walls of two nearby buildings. The blast was set off about 50 yards from the home of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who is believed to head the hard-line fundamentalist Hezbollah (Party of God) movement.
Fadlallah's office announced that the influential cleric escaped "miraculously." Local radio stations said members of his family and six of his bodyguards were among the casualties.
The explosion was the largest and deadliest here since the suicide truck bombings of French and U.S. peace-keeping troops' headquarters in October 1983.
In Washington, administration officials said that the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower and the guided missile cruiser USS Mississippi are being sent toward Lebanon but that there are no plans to evacuate Americans. Details on Page A12.
Today's blast in the Bir al Abed neighborhood was followed by a series of smaller explosions, said to be from bottled gas. Within seconds, gunmen filled the streets of mainly Moslem west Beirut, firing in the air to clear traffic for ambulances and cars rushing victims to nearby hospitals. Civil defense workers struggled to remove heavy slabs of concrete and debris and to dig out casualties trapped under the rubble. Radio stations appealed for blood donations.
Film shown on television showed smoke and fire billowing out of the two damaged buildings and twisted and overturned vehicles in the middle of the street. The bomb, estimated by police at more than 200 pounds of explosives, went off near the Cinderella movie theater.
Hezbollah gunmen prevented journalists from approaching the scene of the explosion as rescue teams heaped remains, limbs and scorched flesh onto stretchers, according to one photographer who managed to enter the area. Bir al Abed is densely populated and known to be a center for extreme fringes of Iranian-inspired Lebanese Shiites.
Today's explosion followed a clash yesterday between Lebanese Army and Israeli units in southern Lebanon, and there were immediate accusations that Israel was responsible for the bombing.
Labor and Education Minister Salim Hoss, a Sunni Moslem, said he had "no doubt that Israel was behind this ugly crime." Druze spokesman Marwan Hamadi, Shiite House Speaker Hussein Husseini and the mainline Shiite organization Amal also charged that the blast was "the work of Israel."
State-run Lebanese television linked the bombing to the "plot being carried out against south Lebanon." The broadcast called it "a massacre aimed at scuttling the resistance of our people."
In Israel, Deputy Prime Minister David Levy, speaking at the funeral of an Israeli soldier killed in yesterday's clash, said that Lebanon was a land "gripped by madness" where bloodletting is a daily occurrence. Levy warned that if the Lebanese Army enters this cycle of madness, it would be ruining itself. "I only hope that such an incident will not happen again," he cautioned.
Yesterday Nabih Berri, the Cabinet minister for southern Lebanon and the top leader of Amal, called on the government to boost the arms and numbers of Lebanese Army units deployed in the south since Feb. 16, when Israeli troops completed the first phase of a partial pullout.
Last week Berri said that every attack against a Lebanese village would be followed by attacks against Israeli settlements in northern Galilee. Fearful of losing his power base among Lebanese Shiites to the more bellicose rhetoric of Hezbollah, Berri has had to radicalize his position amid growing resentment against Israeli practices in southern Lebanon and daily raids on villages suspected of harboring Shiite guerrillas. Ten days ago clashes between Hezbollah fighters and Amal security men in west Beirut left several wounded.