A powerful car bomb ripped through a rush hour street in mainly Christian east Beirut on Friday, killing at least three people and wounding 96, as tensions grow in Lebanon over the war in neighbouring Syria.
Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil told reporters at the scene that three bodies were retrieved from the site of the blast, and that one of those hurt was in critical condition.
The blast occurred in a busy square in Ashrafieh as pupils were leaving schools and bank employees headed home, only 200 metres (yards) from the headquarters of the Christian party, the Phalange, which is hostile to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
State prosecutor Hatem Madi said the car "was blown off dozens of metres (yards)" from where it was parked on a street off Sassine Square.
Bomb experts told AFP the car was packed with 30 kilogrammes (66 pounds) of explosives.
Mangled remains of the car sat atop another vehicle amid a sea of devastation, broken glass and rubble.
Two apartment blocs were gutted, with balconies torn off by the force of the blast. Windows were shattered, cars below crushed by falling masonry and shreds of what used to be curtains dangled from upper storeys.
Several roads branch off from the square into different parts of Beirut, and the area is dense with apartment blocks, cafes, restaurants and shops.
Firemen rushed to put out flames and Red Cross workers braved the blaze in one building to evacuate bloodied casualties.
"We heard a powerful explosion. The earth shook under our feet," said Roland, 19, among a large crowd of army, rescue workers and onlookers.
Nancy, aged 45, was in tears as she reflected on having narrowly escaped death.
"Had we not been out of the house buying medicines, we would have died," she said. "Our house was burned. Thank God we're alive.
"This attack is a message to Christians and to all Lebanese, to tell us nobody is safe in this country," said Nancy. "Who knows what will happen in future?"
Relatives of employees at BEMO bank, whose windows were broken, dashed to the area to look for their children. "Where is Pierre?" one man cried.
A young woman sifted through rubble, frantically shouting "mother, mother" while around her passersby were in shock and crying.
A rescue worker, identifying himself as Rahmeh, said "this reminds me of attacks during the civil war and after the war."
Phalange MP for Ashrafieh Nadim Gemayel accused Syria of orchestrating the blast, but Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi condemned it.
"The Syrian regime is not foreign to such explosions. This is a political blast par excellence," Gemayel told LBC television. "This regime (Syria) which is crumbling is trying to export its conflict to Lebanon."
Zohbi said "these sort of terrorist, cowardly attacks are unjustifiable wherever they occur," according to state-run Syrian news agency SANA.
Soldiers and Interior Minister Marwan Sharbel was also at the scene of the first car bombing in Beirut since January 25, 2008, when Lebanon's top anti-terrorism investigator was slain along with three other people.
The most high-profile car bombing since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war took place on February 14, 2005 when a massive blast killed former premier Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people as his motorcade drove along the waterfront.
At the time, Lebanon was occupied by Syrian troops, who had entered the country during the civil war, and its politics were dominated by Damascus.
Hariri had originally been a supporter of the Syrian regime, but had taken a stand against it before he was murdered.
No one has ever been tried for the assassination, but a UN-backed tribunal has indicted four members of the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, which now dominates the Lebanese government and is allied to the Syrian president.
The four are still at large.
There are strong feelings in Lebanon toward both sides of the Syrian conflict, with some political factions supporting Assad and others opposing him.