A car bomb ripped through Beirut on Friday, killing a top security official and seven others, shearing the balconies off apartment buildings and sending bloodied residents staggering into the streets in the most serious blast the Lebanese capital has seen in four years.
Dozens of people were wounded in the attack, which the state-run news agency said targeted the convoy of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the intelligence division of Lebanon's domestic security forces.
Many quickly raised the possibility the violence was connected to the civil war in neighbouring Syria, which has sent destabilising ripples through Lebanon for the past 19 months.
Al-Hassan led an investigation over the summer that implicated a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician and one of the highest aides to Syrian president Bashar Assad in plots to carry out bombings in Lebanon.
The blast ripped through a narrow street at mid-afternoon in Beirut's mainly Christian Achrafieh neighbourhood, an area packed with cafes and shops. Doors and windows were shattered, and several blackened cars appeared to have been catapulted through the air.
Bloodied residents fled their homes while others tried to help the seriously wounded. One little girl, apparently unconscious and bleeding from her head, was carried to an ambulance in the arms of rescue workers, her white shoes stained with blood.
"I was standing nearby in Sassine Square and I heard a big explosion and I ran straight to it," resident Elie Khalil said. He said he saw at least 15 bloodied people in a nearby car park before medics arrived and took them to a hospital.
Mr Al-Hassan's body was so disfigured in the blast that his bodyguards only realised it was him when they recognised his shoes, a paramedic at the scene said.
Eight people were killed, including al-Hassan, and 78 wounded, the state-run National News Agency said..
Syrian information minister Omran al-Zouebi denounced the bombing, calling it a "terrorist and cowardly" attack. Syria's top ally in Lebanon, the Shiite Hezbollah movement, also condemned the attack, expressing its "state of great shock over this terrible terrorist crime".