FORMER Lebanese cabinet minister Mohamad Chatah, a bitter opponent of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, has been killed in a massive car bomb blast.
One of Mr Chatah’s close allies blamed the attack on Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia. Five others died in the blast which has thrown Lebanon, already embroiled in neighbouring Syria’s civil war, into more turmoil.
It is the latest in a series of sectarian bombings, targeting variously Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the past year. Former prime minister Saad al-Hariri accused Hezbollah of involvement in the killing of Mr Chatah, 62, his political adviser, saying it was “a new message of terrorism”.
“As far as we are concerned the suspects are those who are fleeing international justice and refusing to represent themselves before the international tribunal,” Mr Hariri said.
Mr Chatah’s killing occurred three weeks before the long-delayed opening of a trial of five Hezbollah suspects indicted for the 2005 bombing which killed former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, Saad’s father, and 21 other people.
The trial is due to open in The Hague in January. The suspects are all fugitives and Hezbollah, which denies any part in the Hariri assassination, has refused to co-operate. Preliminary United Nations investigations implicated Syrian officials.
Mr Chatah, a Sunni Muslim, was a vocal critic of Hezbollah.
A message on his Twitter account less than an hour before the blast accused Hezbollah of trying to take control of the country.
“Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years,” the tweet read.
The conflict in Syria has polarised Lebanon and increased sectarian tensions. Hezbollah has sent fighters to Syria to fight alongside Mr Assad’s forces.
Some of the Sunni Syrian rebel groups are linked to al-Qaeda, which is also seeking to topple Mr Assad.
Former minister Marwan Hamadeh, who survived a car bomb in 2004, told Al Arabiya television: “Hezbollah will not be able to rule Lebanon, no matter how much destruction it causes or blood it spills.”
Lebanese president Michel Suleiman and premier Najib Mikati and officials from across Lebanon’s sectarian divide condemned Mr Chatah’s killing.
Mr Mikati said the blast targeted “a moderate academic and noble political figure who believed in dialogue, the language of reason and the right to different views”.
Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar told Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV: “We condemn this terrorist act. It is part of a terrorist wave which the region and Lebanon are witnessing”.
Mr Chatah was a key member of Mr Hariri’s circle of advisers.
An economist and a diplomat, he worked for the International Monetary Fund in Washington and served as Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States. He was also minister of finance from July 2008 to November 2009, after which he worked as a foreign policy adviser to the younger Mr Hariri.
Sources at the explosion site said Mr Chatah was on his way to attend a meeting at Hariri’s headquarters when the explosion tore through his car. Mr Hariri himself has stayed away from Lebanon for more than two years, fearing for his safety.
A witness said Mr Chatah’s car was “totally destroyed, it is a wreck.”
Shia Iran, which backs Hezbollah, came under attack in Beirut last month. On 19 November two suicide bombings rocked its embassy compound, killing at least 25 people including an Iranian cultural attaché.
The sound of Friday’s blast was heard across the city at around 9:40am and black smoke was seen rising in the business district. It shattered glass in nearby apartment blocks and damaged cars, restaurants, coffee shops and offices.