A huge car bomb blast in central Beirut Friday killed six people including an influential member of a coalition opposed to the Syrian regime, leaving cars ablaze and buildings wrecked.
Tensions have soared in Lebanon since the outbreak of the war in neighbouring Syria, as the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement has sent troops to back the regime while their rivals in the Western-backed March 14 coalition have supported the Sunni-led rebels.
State news agency NNA said Mohammad Chatah, 62, was killed in the blast as he headed to a meeting of the March 14 coalition at the mansion of ex-premier Saad Hariri. Dozens were wounded in the explosion.
Chatah, an influential economist, former finance minister and ex-envoy to Washington, had served as adviser to ex-premier Fuad Siniora and remained a close aide to his successor, Hariri, who has lived abroad since 2011 for security reasons.
Hariri’s father, billionaire ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, was killed in a massive seafront blast in 2005 just blocks away from Friday’s explosion, in an assassination his supporters blamed on Syria.
Friday’s blast sent thick black smoke across the capital and over the Grand Serail, a huge Ottoman-era complex housing the offices of the prime minister.
Footage broadcast on Future TV showed people with their clothes on fire and others lying on the ground, bloodied and in shock, as ambulances and security forces raced to the scene.
NNA said more than 50 people were wounded and more than 10 buildings badly damaged by the blast, which prosecutor general Samir Hammud said was caused by 50-60 kilos (110-132 pounds) of explosives.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, the first in recent times to have struck the commercial and banking district of Beirut, which is also home to government offices and parliament.
The March 14 coalition implied Damascus and Hezbollah were behind the attack without naming them, saying in a statement that “the criminal is the same, he who is thirsty for the blood of Syrians… he and his Lebanese allies”.
Hariri said those responsible for Chatah’s murder, are “those who are hiding from international justice and who have spread the regional fire to the (Lebanese) nation… and who killed Rafiq Hariri”.
Hezbollah did not react to March 14’s implicit accusation, but said the bombing was aimed at destroying “national unity”.
Syria denied the “wrong and arbitrary accusations,” saying “some figures in Lebanon have never stopped accusing (Damascus) every time a painful assassination takes place in the brother country Lebanon”.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, staunch opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, also condemned the attack, as did Kuwait and Jordan.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon condemned it “in the strongest terms”, and said the international community was determined to support Lebanon’s “security and stability”.
An hour before he was killed Chatah had criticised Hezbollah on Twitter.
“Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years,” he said, in reference to Syria’s nearly 30-year domination of Lebanon, which ended following mass protests against Hariri’s 2005 murder.
Hezbollah has refused to hand over suspects wanted by a UN-backed tribunal investigating the murder of Hariri and 22 others in that bombing.
Five Hezbollah members are to be tried in absentia by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Netherlands, with the first hearing set for January 16.
A source close to Chatah called the bombing a “message ahead of the trial, saying ‘You want justice? Here it is’.”
Chatah was the ninth high-profile anti-Syria figure killed in Lebanon since Hariri’s assassination.
The attack was a grim throwback to the violence that tore Lebanon apart during the 1975-1990 civil war, and comes as the multi-sectarian country is bitterly divided over the war in neighbouring Syria and hosting more 800,000 Syrian refugees.
Lebanon has seen several bombings and attacks linked to the Syria conflict, but Friday’s was the first in Beirut’s city centre.
Rafiq Hariri oversaw the rebuilding of central Beirut after it was flattened in the civil war, and today it houses the parliament building, modern glass towers, shops, cafes and restaurants, and is known for its nightlife and tourist attractions.
“We were opening our store when we heard the blast. It was really loud. We are used to blasts in Lebanon but not in this area. Now we are not safe anywhere,” said shop clerk Mohammad, 23.
Lebanon has been without a government for months over deep divisions between Hezbollah and the parties opposed to its involvement in Syria.
Many in Lebanon resent that Hezbollah — which is blacklisted by the United States and the European Union — refused to disarm after the civil war on the grounds that it must fight Israel.