BEIRUT - A huge car bomb exploded in a street in central Beirut during rush hour on Friday, killing at least eight people and wounding about 80, witnesses and officials said.

The blast targeted and killed senior Lebanese intelligence official Wissam al-Hassan, a Lebanese official told Reuters. Al-Hassan was the brain behind uncovering a recent bomb plot that led to the arrest of a Lebanese politician allied to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"I can just say that it is true, he is dead," the official, who worked with al-Hassan, said.

The blast occurred at a time of heightened tension between Lebanese factions on opposite sides of the Syria conflict.

The bomb exploded in the street where the office of the anti-Damascus Christian Phalange Party is located near Sassine Square in Ashafriyeh, a mostly Christian area.

Phalange leader Sami al-Gemayel, a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar Assad and member of parliament, condemned the attack.

"Let the state protect the citizens. We will not accept any procrastination in this matter, we cannot continue like that. We have been warning for a year. Enough," said Gemayel, whose brother was assassinated in November 2006.

The blast occurred during rush hour, when many parents were picking up children from school, and sent black smoke billowing into the sky.

Eight people were killed and at least 78 were wounded, the state news agency said, quoting civil defense officials.

Several cars were destroyed by the explosion and the front of a multi-story building was badly damaged, with tangled wires and metal railings crashing to the ground.

In the aftermath, residents ran about in panic looking for relatives while others helped carry the wounded to ambulances. Security forces blanketed the area.

Ambulances ferried the wounded to several hospitals, where doctors, nurses and students waited for casualties at the doors. At one hospital, an elderly woman sat in the emergency room with blood staining her blouse.

The hospitals put out an appeal for blood donations.

The war in neighboring Syria, which has killed 30,000 people so far, has pitted mostly Sunni insurgents against President Assad, who is from the Alawite sect linked to Shi'ite Islam.

Tension between Sunnis and Shi'ites has been rumbling in Lebanon ever since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war but reignited after the Syria conflict erupted.

It reached its peak when former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni, was killed in 2005. Hariri supporters accused Syria and then Hezbollah of killing him - a charge they both deny. An international tribunal accused several Hezbollah members of involvement in the murder.

Hezbollah's political opponents, who have for months accused it of aiding Assad's forces, have warned that its involvement in Syria could reignite the sectarian tension of the civil war.

The last bombing in Beirut was in 2008 when three people were killed in an explosion which damaged a US diplomatic car.

However fighting had broken out this year between supporters and opponents of Assad in the northern city of Tripoli.

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