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Middle East

Lebanon: Hezbollah critic Mohamad Chatah’s murder blamed on Shia militant movement

Attack threatens to heighten tensions between the Syrian President’s allies and opponents

The increasingly familiar scene of sparkling, crunching glass underfoot, puddles of blood and the burned carcasses of vehicles revisited Lebanon on Friday as a car bomb ripped through central Beirut, killing six people.

The target of the latest bomb was Mohamad Chatah, formerly Lebanon’s finance minister and ambassador to the US. More recently, he was a senior adviser to the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the leader of a political bloc that staunchly opposes the Syrian government and Hezbollah, the powerful Shia militant movement that is dominant in Lebanon and allied with Damascus.

An hour before he was assassinated, Mr Chatah took to Twitter to criticise Hezbollah. “Hezbollah is pressing to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 yrs,” he wrote, referring to Syria’s occupation of parts of Lebanon that ended in 2005. Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters across the border to aid the Syrian government, an act that has fuelled tensions. Lately, Hezbollah’s enemies in Lebanon have become more and more aggressive in calling for an end to the group’s dominant position in the country.

Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that the bomb was estimated to weigh more than 50 kilograms and was placed inside a stolen Honda car. The car exploded as Mr Chatah’s convoy passed by at about 9.40am. 

Mr Hariri appeared to point a finger at Hezbollah. “The ones who run away from international justice and refuse to appear before the international tribunal,” were responsible, he wrote on Twitter. 

He was referring to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the international court for the prosecution of those responsible for the 2005 assassination of his father, the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. After much delay, the trial of several Hezbollah suspects is set to begin in The Hague in January.  Hezbollah denies any role in the assassination. “Those who assassinated Mohamad Chatah are the ones who assassinated Rafik Hariri” Saad Hariri wrote in another message.

Mr Chatah was hailed as a voice of moderations. The British ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, wrote that Mr Chatah “was a wise, tolerant, smart patriot”, later adding that Lebanon should not let his killers “kill that moderation”.

In the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s seat of Sunni militancy and Mr Chatah’s home town, gunmen deployed in the streets, blocked off roads and fired their weapons in the air in anger. Tripoli has been the scene of much of the spill-over of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, with Sunni militias who support Syria’s rebels often clashing with Alawite Muslim militias who support the Syrian government.

Friday’s blast hit Beirut’s most affluent quarter, home to five-star hotels, boutiques, luxury apartment blocks and just a short walk away from a marina.

It is the latest in a string of attacks that have rocked Lebanon this year. On 15 August, a bomb ripped through a largely Shia neighbourhood in Beirut which is known for its support of Hezbollah, killing 27 people. On 23 August, twin car bombs targeted the mosques of two vehemently anti-Hezbollah Sunni preachers in Tripoli, killing 45. Last month, suicide bombers attacked the Iranian embassy in Beirut, and 25 people died.

With the war in Syria continuing to drive tensions and violence in Lebanon, many see future instability as inevitable. “As long as the situation in the Middle East is in turmoil, we are paying the price,” said Samer Baydoun, the owner of a pharmacy next to the blast site, as he swept away debris on Friday.