TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- Car bombs exploded with catastrophic force outside two Sunni mosques in this northern Lebanon city Friday as many worshippers were leaving prayers, killing dozens of people and wounding hundreds.
The bombings were a major escalation of sectarian violence in Lebanon, a country deeply unsettled by the conflict in neighboring Syria, and reinforced fears that the Middle East could be plunging into unbridled Sunni vs. Shiite warfare.
President Michel Suleiman cut short a visit abroad to meet with security officials on the double blast and exhorted them to "deploy their efforts to reveal the perpetrators and the instigators." Lebanon's prime minister-designate, Tammam Salam, said in a statement that "the Tripoli crime is an additional indicator that the situation in Lebanon has reached a very dangerous level."
Witnesses and Lebanese media said the double blast hit the Taqwa and Al-Salam mosques, on opposite sides of the city, around 1:38 p.m. Tripoli's mayor, Nader Ghazal, was quoted by Lebanese news media as saying at least 50 people were killed. The Lebanese Red Cross said more than 500 were wounded.
The bombings easily eclipsed the death toll and destruction from a bombing a week earlier in southern Beirut that had targeted Hezbollah, the Shiite militant organization that has aligned with Syria's government against a Sunni-led insurgency, which has contributed to an increasing polarization in Lebanon.
With deadly sectarian violence now regularly convulsing Iraq as well, a broad area of the region stretching from the Mediterranean east to Baghdad and beyond has become a battleground between Sunnis and Shiites, the major Islamic sects. Political historians said the Tripoli bombings would not go unanswered.
"This was an upping of the ante," said Mona Yacoubian, senior Middle East adviser at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington research group. "I think we're seeing the contours of this arena forming in front of our eyes."
The first car bomb hit about 50 yards from the gates of the Taqwa mosque, setting dozens of cars and a nearby building on fire and shattering windows of surrounding buildings. The blast snapped the trunks of palm trees and left a crater in the street that punctured a water main, flooding the area. On the roof of the mosque's entryways sat the carcass of a blown up car that people nearby at the time said was the bomb car, hurtled into the air by the blast.
The second blast near the Al-Salam mosque blasted a 6-foot-deep hole in the asphalt and shattered windows of apartments down the block.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the blasts, but the Taqwa mosque was where Sheik Salem al-Rafei, an outspoken Sunni preacher, had inveighed against Hezbollah and had exhorted worshippers to support the Sunni insurgency trying to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Many Taqwa worshippers said they believed that their mosque had been targeted because of Sheik Rafei. A large banner hung on the mosque's fence bore photographs of three men killed nearly three months ago in the battle for the border city of Qusair, Syria, in which Hezbollah fighters joined the Syrian army to defeat Sunni insurgents ensconced there, in what is widely viewed as a turning point in the Syria conflict. Text next to their faces said they had been "martyred defending the dignity and pride of the nation."
Sheik Rafei was not hurt in the bombing, worshippers said, but efforts to contact him were not immediately successful.