BEIRUT -- A midday explosion rocked a busy commercial area of Beirut on Friday, leaving at least eight dead and 78 injured in the Lebanese capital, according to official and media reports.
There were some reports that the explosion may have occurred inside a building, but the official Lebanese news agency reported that the blast was from a car bomb and that there were "numerous casualties."
There was no immediate word on who was responsible for the blast. Nor was it clear what site may have been targeted.
Video from the scene painted a panorama of chaos, as the injured were led away and people tried to determine the fate of loved ones. In one clip, a man carried an injured young girl away from the scene.
Black smoke hung over the district and thick flames arose from the site of the explosion. Firefighters with hoses tried to douse the blaze. Police cordoned off the area, making access difficult for journalists.
Damaged cars and blown-out storefronts were evident in the video from the scene, near Sassine Square in the Achrafiyeh district, the city’s signature Christian neighborhood. The bustling, landmark square is the site of many cafes, shops and residential buildings, and is a popular meeting spot. The blast occurred in the middle of the afternoon, when the zone was filled with pedestrians and motorists.
The explosion stunned the Lebanese capital, which witnessed a bloody civil war that ended in 1990, and immediately stoked new fears that the explosion could be linked to the ongoing violence in neighboring Syria. The conflict has split Lebanon, with some groups supporting rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad and other Lebanese factions backing his regime.
There has been some spillover violence into Lebanon, but such incidents have mostly been limited to the border areas, where shelling, kidnappings and gunfights have occurred.
Lebanon's punishing, sectarian-tinged civil war lasted for 15 years until a peace plan was put into place. Syrian troops remained in Lebanon until 2005, when outrage about the assassination of a former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri forced their withdrawal. The Syrian government and its ally, Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group, denied any role in the 2005 assassination of Hariri, who was killed in a massive truck-bomb blast in Beirut.
Lebanon's government remains a fragile mixture of often rival groups linked to religious and political factions. Still, the country has been relatively stable and recently hosted a visit from the pope, an event that went off without incident and drew huge crowds.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell