BEIRUT (Reuters) - A car bomb exploded on Tuesday in a Beirut stronghold district of the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group that has been fighting in Syria's civil war, wounding at least 38 people, a hospital official told Reuters.
Reports that one employee had been killed in the parking lot where the explosion occurred in Beirut's southern suburbs could not be confirmed by hospital officials.
Sectarian tensions in Lebanon have been high following the intervention of the Shi'ite Hezbollah in support of President Bashar al-Assad's forces fighting a two-year revolt led by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
"This is the work of agents trying to create strife in Lebanon," said Hezbollah parliamentary deputy Ali Meqdad at the site of the explosion.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said the attack was "a criminal act aimed at destabilizing the country and creating Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian strife".
Syria's conflagration has polarized Lebanon, still healing from a civil war of its own which divided the country along sectarian lines of the kind now plaguing Syria.
Lebanon's Sunni Muslims mostly support the rebels in Syria, while Shi'ites have largely supported Assad, who is part of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Sunni Muslim militant groups have threatened to attack against Hezbollah following its military intervention in Syria.
A Reuters reporter saw a large fire raging at the site of the blast near a shopping mall in Bir al-Abed, an area that is also home to Hezbollah officials and their offices. It was unclear if any of the group's leaders had been in the area.
A pillar of dense black smoke billowed above surrounding high-rise apartment blocks. Ambulances and fire engines sped through the streets to rescue casualties.
Dozens of cars were still ablaze in the parking lot where the car rigged with explosives was left.
Reuters and other media outlets were prevented from reaching the area, where Hezbollah gunmen allowed only the group's Al Manar TV to operate.
Images from the scene showed a crater covered by a blue tarpaulin and surrounded by wrecked cars. Hezbollah men with red caps and yellow arm-bands set up a security cordon around the blast scene along with Lebanese soldiers.
Zeinab, a 45-year-old woman whose apartment opposite the blast site had its windows blown out, broke down in tears.
"I went downstairs to fetch breakfast for my son and then heard the explosion. I want to know he is OK. I want to talk to him."
Shopping areas would likely have been full on Tuesday, the day before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins. Most of the casualties were apparently women and children out shopping.
The attack is the second strike in Shi'ite southern Beirut this year. Two rockets struck the area in May and Lebanese security forces have disarmed several rockets near Beirut in recent months as well.
It was unclear who was behind Tuesday's blast but residents were quick to blame Sunni Muslim militants.
Hajje Alia, a 35-year-old woman clad in a floor-length black robe, said: "We have been expecting explosions in this holy month of Ramadan from the Takfiris (Sunni militants) who are trying to stop us from carrying out our Jihad (Holy war) duties alongside our Syrian brothers, but nothing will stop us, not even 1,000 explosions."
Another woman, Um Ali Jaber, 60, who lives in a building opposite the blast said: "We expected the Takfiris to carry out an attack against us at the start of Ramadan."
The last car bomb to hit Beirut targeted a senior intelligence official in October. Wissam al-Hassan was part of the country's leading Sunni opposition party, which has supported the uprising in Syria.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has promised that his group will continue fighting for Assad after it spearheaded the recapture of the strategic town of Qusair last month.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah was aware of the cost of military engagement in Syria's civil war but would not be deflected from its goal.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said all Lebanese must come together "to get out of the political and security crisis our country is living through".
Abu Ali, who lives near the blast scene, was in no mood for reconciliation.
"They want to terrorize us. The scumbags. These terrorists want us to abandon (the leader of Hezbollah) but we swear we will love him more, for all our lives. All we own, and our children we pledge to him."
(Writing by Erika Solomon and Giles Elgood; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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