BEIRUT - A double suicide bombing outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut killed at least 23 people on Tuesday, in an attack claimed by an Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group.
The Lebanese army said the first blast was caused by a motorcyclist who blew himself up moments before a suicide bomber driving a four-wheel-drive detonated his payload in southern Beirut.
The mid-morning attack, which also wounded almost 150 people in a stronghold of the Hezbollah movement, is the first time the Iranian embassy has been targeted.
The blasts ripped the facades off surrounding buildings, strewing rubble and glass on streets that were stained with blood.
Residents walked dazed past charred cars and trees, as soldiers and Hezbollah security men tried to secure the area.
The attack follows two other bombings this year in Hezbollah bastions in southern Beirut, amid rising tensions over the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Iran is one of Syria's closest allies, and is the key sponsor of Hezbollah, which has dispatched thousands of fighters to bolster the regime as it battles a 32-month uprising.
Damascus quickly condemned Tuesday's attack.
"The Syrian government firmly condemns the terrorist attack carried out near the Iranian embassy in Beirut," state television said.
It said an "odour of petrodollars comes from all the terrorist acts against Syria, Lebanon and Iraq," an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which back Syria's uprising.
Iran also condemned the attack, accusing Israel and its "mercenaries" of responsibility. Israel immediately denied involvement.
Britain and France issued swift statements slamming the bombings, which London described as a "shocking terrorist attack".
The blasts were claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a jihadist group linked to Al-Qaeda that has previously fired rockets at Israel from Lebanese territory.
"This is a double martyrdom operation carried out by two heros from the heroic Sunnis of Lebanon," Sirajeddin Zreikat, a member of the group, wrote on his Twitter account.
The Lebanese army confirmed the attack was a double suicide bombing, and the health ministry said 23 people were dead and 146 wounded.
"The first explosion was caused by a suicide attacker who was driving a motorcycle and blew himself up. The second suicide attacker was driving a 4x4 vehicle and also detonated himself," the army said.
Iran's ambassador to Beirut, Ghazanfar Rokn-Abadi, said all staff inside the embassy at the time of the attack escaped unharmed.
But state media in Tehran said an Iranian national working as an embassy guard had been killed.
Earlier, the ambassador and other officials said an Iranian cultural adviser had been killed, but the foreign ministry in Tehran said later he was still showing "signs of life".
'Act of savagery'
An AFP correspondent at the scene described blood and glass on the streets, and Lebanese media broadcast harrowing images of charred bodies, some still on fire.
One shocked resident said the attack was an act of "savagery".
"People want to live. After this kind of thing we are paralysed for days.
Thank God my children were at school," said Farah, a woman in her 30s.
At the nearby Rasul Aazem hospital, which received seven bodies from the blasts, relatives waited to hear news of their loved ones while others queued to donate blood.
At the Zahraa hospital, Mohamed al-Hajj was searching for his neighbour Tariq.
"He works in front of the embassy and now we don't know where he is. We checked all the hospitals," he told AFP.
Hezbollah has already seen its strongholds in southern Beirut targeted twice by car bombs this year, on July 9 and August 15, killing 27 people.
Its involvement in Syria has angered many Lebanese Sunni Muslims who back the war-hit country's Sunni-dominated opposition.
It has also raised fears Lebanon could be engulfed by the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 120,000 people since March 2011.
But Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah pledged just last week that he would not withdraw his forces.
"We have said on several occasions that the presence of our soldiers on Syrian soil is to defend... Syria, which supports the resistance" against Israel, he said.
"So long as that reason exists, our presence there is justified."
Nasrallah's defiance was echoed by some residents after Tuesday's blasts.
"Even if they do a million explosions, we will not leave the area," said Ali, accusing "Salafis from Syria" of being behind the attacks.