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At least 23 killed, dozens hurt as explosions rock Iranian Embassy site in Beirut

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By Mustafa Kassem, Ayman Mohyeldin and Alastair Jamieson, NBC News

BEIRUT - At least 23 people were killed and 146 wounded when a suspected twin bomb attack rocked the site of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut Tuesday, officials said.

Several cars were engulfed in flames in the street in front of the embassy building, located on the Bir Hassan road in the south of the city.

Iran's ambassador to Lebanon, Rokon Abadi, was uninjured, but in an interview with Lebanese television station MTV he said Iranian cultural attache Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Ansari was killed.

Eyewitnesses described charred bodies and a large crater.

It was not immediately clear if the attack was related to the conflict next door in Syria, but attacks have targeted Hezbollah strongholds in recent months in what many see as retaliation by Sunni extremists for the militant Shiite group's role in the Syrian civil war.

Security camera footage indicated the blasts were carried out using car and a suicide bomber on a motorcycle, officials told Lebanese media.

One explosion blew out the large black main gate of the Iranian mission, damaging the three-story facility, Reuters said.

Lebanon's Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil told Reuters that at least 23 people were killed and 146 wounded, but the toll was changing rapidly as emergency workers and bystanders picked through the wreckage of burning vehicles. 

"At one entrance of the Iranian embassy I counted six bodies outside. I saw body parts around and thrown two streets away," Reuters television cameraman Issam Abdullah said from the scene. 

"There is huge damage, it looks like it is a car bomb. One car is twisted there. There were two Mercedes cars badly damaged," he added. 

Activist Ahmad Yassine posted pictures of the aftermath of the explosion to Twitter, showing burning vehicles and bystanders picking through the wreckage.

The area is home to a number of foreign embassies, including those of Egypt, Kuwait and China.

Sunni rebel groups linked to al Qaeda have repeatedly condemned the military involvement of Iran and its Lebanese Shiite paramilitary ally Hezbollah in the Syrian war, which turned the tide in favor of President Bashar Assad.

At least 66 people were killed in August in tit-for-tat bombings in Sunni and Shiite strongholds in Lebanon.

NBC News' Charlene Gubash and Paul Nassar, and Reuters contributed to this report. Alastair Jamieson and Ayman Mohyeldin reported from London.

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