BAALBEK, Lebanon (AP) — A car bomb went off in an open field near a Hezbollah base in eastern Lebanon early on Tuesday, officials said, the latest in a wave of deadly attacks that have targeted the Shiite militant group's interests in Lebanon.
However, there were conflicting reports on the source of the explosion and the number of casualties resulting from the blast in the remote, scarcely inhabited area was not immediately clear.
The Lebanese National News Agency said it was a suicide bomber, adding that the driver detonated his vehicle near the village of Sbouba in the Baalbek region, about two kilometers (a mile) from a base belonging to the Iranian-backed group. The report said the explosion caused an unspecified number of casualties among Hezbollah members and civilians.
A Lebanese army statement and Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV station said the explosion was a car bomb. The Hezbollah-owned TV said the blast took place near a logistical base belonging to the group, causing some casualties.
The bombing appeared to be related to a series of reprisal attacks over Hezbollah's role in the civil war in neighboring Syria, where members of the group are fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's troops. The group has received threats of retaliation from the largely Sunni rebels fighting to topple him.
Hezbollah has been instrumental in helping Assad's forces seize opposition-held areas in Syria, particularly in areas along the border with Lebanon and near Damascus.
The group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed to continue fighting in Syria for as long as it takes to defeat what he says are takfiris — radical Sunni groups — who pose a threat to Lebanon.
At the site of the explosion, Lebanese army investigators picked through the debris of what appeared to have been a convoy traveling in an otherwise deserted and muddy open field. At least four badly damaged vehicles, including the charred, twisted wreckage of an overturned jeep, were strewn across the field.
"I was still awake when I heard a very strong explosion," said a resident of the closest nearby village, Sbouba.
Hezbollah "removed the bodies of those killed before the army came in and took over," the villager said at the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The NNA report said that the explosion took place on the road between Sbouba and Wadi Abu Mousa in the far-off rural area.
It first said the car bomb was "intercepted" by a Hezbollah checkpoint and exploded after members of the checkpoint fired on it. It was unclear if the car detonated from the gunshots or if the driver set off the explosion, it said. Later, the NNA said that it was a suicide bomber that caused multiple casualties, adding that ambulances rushed to the area, which was sealed off by the militant group and later, the army.
A Lebanese security official said he could not confirm that it was a suicide attack.
Hezbollah's participation in the civil war in Syria is highly divisive and unpopular in Lebanon, where many feel it has deviated from its original purpose of fighting Israel and that it has exposed the Shiite community to retaliation.
The group's open support of Assad has enraged Sunnis — both in Syria and in Lebanon — and left it with no shortage of enemies eager to strike at its strongholds and leadership. Dozens of people have been killed in deadly car bombings claimed by radical Sunni groups in Lebanon.
Most recently, on Dec. 4, gunmen assassinated a senior Hezbollah commander, Hassan al-Laqees, in the garage of his building in a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut.
Last month, two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing 23 people. An al-Qaida-affiliated group claimed responsibility, saying it was payback for Hezbollah's support of Assad. At least two other car bombings have struck in the group's bastion of support, south of the capital, in the past few months.
The Syrian civil war has raised tensions in Lebanon's Sunni and Shiite communities as each side lines up in support of their brethren in the conflict next door. That has fueled predictions that Lebanon, still recovering from its 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is on the brink of descending into full-blown sectarian violence.
In Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city, there have been bloody street battles between rival sides nearly every day, with at least 12 people killed in a particularly violent outbreak of fighting two weeks ago.
Karam reported from Beirut.