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Beirut blast silences senior anti-Syria voice, echoing past assassinations

Mohammed Chatah's death is likely linked to the 2005 assassination of PM Rafik Hariri, who opposed Syrian meddling in Lebanon. Hezbollah members have been indicted in Hariri's killing. 

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A Lebanese Army soldier stands next to a destroyed car at the scene of an explosion in central Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Dec. 27, 2013. The state news agency said a bombing in central Beirut has killed several people, including Mohammed Chatah, a senior aide to former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Hussein Malla/AP

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A former Lebanese finance minister and ambassador to Washington was killed Friday morning in a powerful car bomb explosion in central Beirut, the first political assassination in Lebanon in more than a year.

Lebanon has been rocked this year by several large car bomb attacks, mainly targeting Sunni and Shiite areas in what is regarded as spillover from neighboring Syria’s grueling civil war. But the car bomb killing of Mohammed Chatah, who was widely regarded as a political moderate, appeared more in line with a wave of assassinations of anti-Syrian political figures in the wake of the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister who was regarded as a threat to Syrian influence in Lebanon.  

On Jan. 16, the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Netherlands begins the in absentia trial of five members of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah who are accused of involvement in Mr. Hariri’s assassination.

Mr. Chatah and his bodyguard died instantly, when a car bomb, estimated at around 110 pounds of explosive, detonated as his vehicle passed by. At least six other people died and dozens more were wounded in the blast, which could be heard across the Lebanese capital. Burning vehicles sent a thick column of black smoke billowing into the blue sky as ambulances and fire engines raced to the scene.

The pavement was covered with shattered glass from the broken windows of office blocks surrounding the car bombing. Television footage showed at least two bodies on the ground. The wrecks of three burned-out cars lay a few yards from a five-foot wide hole filled with water, foam and spilled petrol, marking the epicenter of the blast. The force of the explosion had tossed an entire car engine block some 25 feet into a decorative pool of water. Other vehicle fragments were strewn across the road and pavement..

“The explosion was so loud. I thought it was the end of the world,” said Fouad Daouq, a bystander.

The bomb blast occurred along a narrow, usually quiet street in the city center surrounded by gleaming tower blocks that have sprung up as part of the post 1975-1990 civil war reconstruction of Beirut. Chatah was on his way to a meeting of the Future Movement, a mainly Sunni political faction that is part of the March 14 parliamentary coalition which opposes the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and is a political rival of Hezbollah.

The Future Movement is headed by Saad Hariri, a former prime minister and son of the slain Rafik Hariri who has lived outside Lebanon since April 2011, reportedly because of threats to his security. Chatah was a key advisor to Hariri.

His final tweet, posted a few hours before his death, read “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years."

Trained as an economist, Chatah worked at the International Monetary Fund in Washington and at Lebanon’s Central Bank before being appointed Lebanese ambassador to the US in 1997. He returned to the IMF in 2001, but came back to Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. In 2008, he was appointed finance minister in the government of then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

He was widely regarded as a political moderate and a technocrat, preferring the lower profile role of dispensing advice and counsel. His assassination was condemned across the political divide. Robert Ghanem, a March 14 member of parliament, said that the “entire Lebanese entity was the target of the blast.”

He added that Chatah “was not an extremist. He used to speak logically and was known for being ethical.”

Mr. Siniora, who heads the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc, implicitly accused Syria of being behind Chatah’s death, saying “the murderer, with its Lebanese allies, is targeting Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon in Lebanon and Syria’s Deraa, Aleppo and Damascus.” 

“We received the criminals’ bloody message and we reply that Lebanon will remain free as tyrants will fall,” Siniora said following the meeting of the March 14 coalition that Chatah was on his way to when he was killed. He also demanded that Chatah’s killing be investigated by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is charged with investigating and holding the trials of those accused of the assassination of Rafik Hariri as well as one other political murder and two attempted assassinations in 2004 and 2005.

In a statement, Saad Hariri hinted that Hezbollah was responsible, saying that the killers of his father, Rafik, were also guilty of Chatah’s assassination.“The accused, in our opinion, and until further notice, are the same people who are running away from international justice, and refusing to appear before the International Tribunal, they are the ones attracting evil and chaos into Lebanon and on the Lebanese, and luring regional fires into our country,” he said.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has indicted five members of Hezbollah for involvement in Rafik Hariri’s assassination. Hezbollah has refused to hand over the accused men and dismissed the tribunal as a Western attempt to weaken the Iran-backed group.

Hezbollah condemned Chatah’s assassination, warning that “this ugly crime aims at destroying the country and is a sinful attempt to target stability and national unity which only benefits Lebanon’s enemies."

Lebanon has been hit by a number of bombings this year. Two car bomb attacks in the Shiite-populated Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut in July and August left a total of 27 people dead and nearly 400 wounded.

Another car bomb killed 23 people in November when it exploded outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut. A twin car bomb attack against two Sunni mosques in the northern city of Tripoli in August killed 47. Smaller bomb attacks have targeted Hezbollah vehicles and facilities in the Bekaa Valley, the latest last week when a suicide car bomber blew up near a Hezbollah base. Those attacks were connected to the war in Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, spurring calls for retaliation by extremist, predominantly Sunni Syrian rebel groups.

Chatah’s murder fits into a different category, however, and resembles the flurry of assassinations and attempted assassinations, most of them car bombs, that killed or wounded a dozen anti-Syrian politicians and journalists and security officials between October 2004 and January 2008.

The last political assassination of a Lebanese official occurred in October 2012, when Wissam al-Hassan, a top police chief, was killed in a car bomb explosion in Beirut. The nature of Gen. Hassan’s job made him a potential target. But Chatah’s low-key role as advisor suggests that his assassination was not a bid to remove a troublesome political player but was intended as a blunt message to his colleagues in the March 14 coalition.

“It’s because of the tribunal,” sobbed a colleague of Chatah on the telephone, suggesting that the former minister’s death was linked to the trial that begins on Jan. 16. Syria was widely blamed for being behind the Hariri’s assassination, even though no Syrian official has been formally charged by the tribunal.

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