A Lebanese emergency response officer stands on a balcony, on November 20, 2013, at the scene of the previous day's double suicide bombing near the Iranian embassy in Beirut
A Lebanese emergency response officer stands on a balcony, on November 20, 2013, at the scene of the previous day's double suicide bombing near the Iranian embassy in Beirut © Anwar Amro - AFP
A Lebanese emergency response officer stands on a balcony, on November 20, 2013, at the scene of the previous day's double suicide bombing near the Iranian embassy in Beirut
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AFP
Last updated: November 20, 2013

Iranian ambassador narrowly escaped Beirut blasts

Iran's ambassador to Lebanon narrowly escaped Tuesday's twin suicide bombings that killed 25 people and stoked renewed recriminations over the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

The attack, claimed by Sunni Muslim jihadists, was aimed at Shiite Iran's alliance with President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria, raising fears the civil war there could spill over into Lebanon.

An Iranian diplomat said Ambassador Ghazanfar Rokn-Abadi and cultural advisor Ibrahim Ansari -- who died from the blast -- had been on their way to see Lebanon's culture minister when the bombs went off.

"The advisor was waiting in the car near the entrance when the first suicide attacker blew himself up. The ambassador, who would have left the building within a minute, went back."

Ansari, four embassy guards and an Iranian woman were "among the innocent, pure martyrs" of the attack, said Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who arrived in Beirut on Wednesday.

Thousands turned out for the funeral of the guards, all members of Lebanon's powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and is fighting alongside Assad's troops against Sunni-led rebels.

While condemning the blasts and "extending its condolences... to the Iranian people," Syria's opposition National Coalition warned Iran and Hezbollah against continuing to support Assad.

"Any delays in correcting (their) approach... will only increase the cost paid by all peoples in the region," a statement said late Wednesday.

Opposition backer Saudi Arabia also "forcefully" condemned the blasts, describing them as "cowardly terrorist attacks," state news agency SPA quoted a spokesman as saying.

At the funeral, teary-eyed Hezbollah fighters and other mourners filled the streets, hoisting coffins draped in the movement's yellow and green flags and chanting against Sunni extremists.

The health ministry had earlier raised the death toll after two new bodies were found. Neither could be immediately identified.

The twin suicide attack was claimed by an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group and is the first of its kind against Iran's mission in Lebanon, which is located in a Hezbollah bastion in southern Beirut.

Iran has had a military advisory mission in Syria since 1980 and played a major role in the emergence of Hezbollah during Lebanon's own civil war in the 1980s.

Lebanese officials expressed their condolences at the embassy to Amir-Abdollahian and Ambassador Rokn-Abadi.

Russian Ambassador Alexander Zasypkin said the bombings were an attempt to torpedo a peace conference the United Nations is trying to organise next month with the backing of both Moscow and Washington.

In an interview with AFP, Hezbollah politburo chief Sheikh Ibrahim Amin al-Sayed denounced the bombings as a "cowardly, desperate act" and dared Hezbollah's rivals to "come fight in Syria."

Analysts described the blasts as a new sign that Syria's war, which has killed more than 120,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes, is spilling over into Lebanon.

Hilal al-Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, also described the blasts as a sign of "a direct confrontation between Al-Qaeda on one side, and all those who back the Syrian regime and Iran on the other."

They "are a direct message to Iran that says: 'You are the origin of the problem in Syria; we will face you directly, not by proxy,'" Khashan added.

The attack follows two car bombs in south Beirut over the summer, one of which killed 27 people.

"Despite the tight, effective security measures taken by the authorities in Lebanon, Lebanon and Syria's (territories) are open to each other via uncontrolled borders. It is not difficult for terrorists to cross over," said Khashan.

As Sunni-Shiite tensions escalate, there are fears of the return of violence similar to Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

"Al-Qaeda versus Iran: the face-off in Lebanon," read a headline in the An-Nahar newspaper, warning that such a confrontation risks pushing the country to the brink.

"This latest terrorist (act) represents a... dangerous turning point" that throws Lebanon "into an open regional confrontation," it said.

More than 800,000 Syrian refugees have sought shelter in Lebanon, which has been scourged for years by sectarian and political divisions pitting Hezbollah-led supporters of Syria's Assad against the Sunni-led opposition.

Lebanon was dominated by Damascus for nearly 30 years until international pressure forced Syrian troops to withdraw in 2005 following the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri, in a car bombing that Hezbollah operatives have been accused of carrying out.

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