Leading pro-Western pol Mohamad Chatah killed in powerful Beirut blast

9:28 AM, Dec 27, 2013   |    comments
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BEIRUT (CBS NEWS) -- A strong car bomb tore through a business district in the center of the Lebanese capital Friday, setting cars ablaze and killing a prominent pro-Western politician and four other people. 

The bomb targeted Mohamad Chatah, a former finance minister and a senior aide to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in his car as he drove through central Beirut, Lebanon's National News Agency said, confirming what security sources had told numerous foreign news agencies. Chatah was also a former ambassador to the U.S. 

The National News Agency said Chatah's driver was also killed, along with three other people. The Health Ministry said more than 70 others were wounded.

Lebanon has seen a wave of bombings over the past months as tensions rise over Syria's civil war. 

Hariri heads the main, Western-backed coalition in Lebanon, which is engaged in bitter feuding with the militant Hezbollah group, which is allied to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Several recent bombings have targeted senior Hezbollah figures or districts where the Shiite group dominates.

In a statement Friday, Hariri implicitly accused Hezbollah of killing Chatah in the explosion and warned, "Those who assassinated (Chatah) ... want to assassinate Lebanon."

The Friday morning blast was heard across the city and sent thick black smoke billowing in the post downtown commercial district behind the government headquarters and above the seafront of the Lebanese capital. It was also near several hotels. 

The army cordoned off the scene, where the twisted wreckage of several cars was still smoldering. The National News Agency said the explosion was the result of a car bomb, but security officials said they had no immediate confirmation.

The explosion sent shock waves among residents and emptied the streets in downtown where people, seeking a respite from recent turmoil, had ventured out to enjoy the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

The security officials said Chatah was on the way to a meeting at Hariri's downtown residence when the bomb hit. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. 

Footage broadcast on Lebanese TV showed medical workers rushing the wounded to ambulances. At least two bodies could be seen lying on the pavement. 

The Syrian war has raised tensions in Lebanon's Sunni and Shiite communities as each side lines up in support of their brethren in the conflict next door. 

That has fueled predictions that Lebanon, still recovering from its 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is on the brink of descending into full-blown sectarian violence. 

Chatah, a prominent economist, was one of the closest aides to former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a truck bombing in Beirut in 2005, not far from Friday's explosion.

He later became finance minister when Hariri's son, Saad, took over the premiership, and stayed on as his senior adviser after he lost the post in early 2011.

Chatah's killing occurred three weeks before the long-delayed opening of a trial of five Hezbollah suspects indicted for the February 2005 bombing that Rafik Hariri and 21 other people. Hezbollah has denied involvement in the 2005 attack. Preliminary U.N. investigations implicated Syrian officials.

A tweet posted on Chatah's Twitter account less than an hour before the blast accused the Shiite movement of trying to take control of the country, saying, "Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers insecurity and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years."

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