At least four people were killed and 18 others injured in a car-bomb attack in a Hezbollah stronghold city in eastern Lebanon on Saturday, officials said. The blast marks the second car bomb attack in the area in less than a month, and the fourth attack in a Hezbollah stronghold this year, as violence continues to spill over from the conflict in Syria.
The blast occurred in the town of Hermel at the northern end of the Bekaa Valley, an area populated mainly by Shia Muslims among whom Hezbollah draws its support.
Lebanon's National News Agency cited witnesses who said the perpetrator entered a gas station and asked to buy fuel before detonating the bomb, leaving a meter-deep hole in the ground and setting the station and nearby cars on fire.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Saturday's blast fit a pattern of attacks by rival sectarian groups that has been amplified by Syria's civil war.
Since taking up arms in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah has become a frequent target of Al-Qaeda-linked opposition groups fighting in the conflict.
The last attack in Lebanon occurred on Jan. 21, killing four people and injuring 35 others. That bombing, a suicide attack, was claimed by the Nusra Front, one of the Al-Qaeda-linked opposition groups.
"With the help of God almighty we have responded to the massacres carried out by the party of Iran (Hezbollah)... with a martyrdom operation in their backyard in the southern (Beirut) suburbs," Nusra Front said in a statement at the time.
Lebanon's caretaker interior minister, Marwan Charbel, told Reuters by phone that the situation in Lebanon was "unstable and getting worse every day".
"This matter is very, very dangerous," he said. "It is bigger than the security apparatus."
Suicide bombers often use stolen vehicles, and Charbel said up to 400 cars had been stolen in Lebanon in the last six months.
Shortly after the explosion in Hermel, a bomb went off near an Al Manar office in the Beirut neighborhood of Ouzai, a security source said. It was not clear whether the Hezbollah-run television station had been targeted or whether anyone was hurt.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Lebanese MP Kazem Kheir said that Saturday's attacks were intended to "divide" the Lebanese people. He called for the creation of a new cabinet, which he said would help stabilize the political situation. He added that a new cabinet would create a buffer zone between Lebanon and Syria to prevent the Syrian conflict from continuing to spill over the border.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s conflict and the steady flow of Lebanese Sunnis joining the anti-Assad opposition has resulted in numerous instances of violence crossing over into Lebanon – where the conflict is a divisive issue.
Al Jazeera's Nisreen el-Shamayleh, reporting from Lebanon, said that Hezbollah is believed to be sending fighters into Syria from Hermel, which is located near the Syrian border.
The attacked followed the conclusion of the first round of Syria peace talks, which failed to produce a tangible agreement. Kamel Wazne, political analyst and founder of the Center for American Strategic Studies, called the timing of the attacks a coincidence.
"The people who want to blow themselves up are just working logistically and not looking at timing," he said. "At this point it seems to be an open war" that is being directed at "any place" that resembles a Hezbollah stronghold.
He described the conflict as a "regional proxy war" being waged between Iran and Saudi Arabia on several fronts, including Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Saudi Arabia, which supports the Syrian opposition, has been accused of funding Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria. Iran, which backs Assad, is a financier of Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been vying for influence in the region for years.
"The attacks will only continue," Wazne said, because they are part of a "major confrontation between supporters of Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah," one that is "taking a bloody toll on civilians."
Al Jazeera and wire services