HUNDREDS of mourners packed into a landmark mosque in central Beirut yesterday to bid farewell to a prominent Lebanese politician who was killed in a powerful car bombing last week that deeply rattled the country.
The explosion on Friday that killed Mohammed Chatah, a former finance minister and top aide to former prime minister Saad Hariri, has strained long-difficult relations between Lebanon’s two main political blocs and ratcheted up sectarian tensions that are already running high over the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Mr Chatah, a Sunni, was affiliated with Mr Hariri’s Western-backed coalition, which has been locked in a bitter feud with a rival camp led by the Shiite group Hezbollah, a close ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Mr Hariri, whose own father was killed by a massive car bomb in 2005, has indirectly blamed Hezbollah for Mr Chatah’s killing.
After a sombre funeral service inside Beirut’s blue-domed Mohammed al-Amin Mosque, pallbearers carried Mr Chatah’s coffin to the adjacent funeral tent where he was buried next to Mr Hariri’s father, Rafik. At several points during the ceremony, some in the crowd broke into chants of “A terrorist, a terrorist, Hezbollah is a terrorist!”
Speaking later, Fouad Siniora, an ally of Mr Chatah, praised his late colleague as a voice of moderation, and promised those in the crowd that such political killings will not knock the Lebanese off their course.
“We will not surrender. We will not back down. We are not afraid of terrorists and murderers. It is they who should be afraid.
“They kill to govern, while we reiterate our commitment to Lebanon of co-existence and civil peace,” he said.
Mr Siniora, who is a former prime minister, also attacked Hezbollah
He said: “We have decided to liberate Lebanon from the occupation of illegitimate weapons.”
Hezbollah’s critics accuse the group of being a state-within-a-state because it has maintained its own militia, which is stronger even than the national army.
Mr Chatah’s death has added to the sense of instability in Lebanon. Fragile at the best of times, the country is struggling to cope with the fallout from the Syrian war. The conflict has deeply divided Lebanon and paralysed the country’s ramshackle political system to the point where it has been stuck with a weak and ineffectual caretaker government since April.
The car bombing that killed Mr Chatah was reminiscent of a series of assassinations of around a dozen members of the anti-Syrian Hariri camp between 2004 and 2008, the biggest of which was the powerful blast that killed Mr Hariri’s father Rafik, who also was a former prime minister. Mr Hariri’s allies accused Syria of being behind the killings, a claim Damascus denied.
Five members of Hezbollah have been indicted for their alleged involvement in the senior Hariri’s assassination. Their trial at a special UN-backed tribunal is set to start on 16 January.
Hezbollah rejects the accusations, and has refused to hand over the suspects.