BEIRUT – The assassination of a prominent Lebanese politician Friday in a bombing in downtown Beirut shattered the illusion that Syrias tiny neighbor can avoid the brutal violence on the other side of the border as its deeply divided political system continues to take sides in Syrias conflict.
Mohammed Chatah, a former finance minister and ambassador to the United States, was killed along with his bodyguard and at least four passers-by when a bomb targeted his convoy as he left a meeting of prominent pro-Syrian-rebel politicians in downtown Beirut.
The explosion was the first of its kind to strike Beiruts ritzy downtown since the 2005 car bombing assassination of Chatahs close friend and political ally, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and 21 other people. Fridays blast destroyed several storefronts, blew out windows in exclusive condominiums and luxury hotels and set nearly a dozen cars ablaze after it exploded just before 10 a.m. local time. The bomb rattled windows throughout the city, which has been on edge since two bombs struck the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs this year.
In Lebanese political circles, Chatah was seen as a moderate political figure and an economics-orientated technocrat from the Sunni Muslim-majority northern city of Tripoli. Compared with many other members of his political party, the Future Movement, he was considered a less bombastic voice despite his deep opposition to the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and Assads top Lebanese ally, the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah.
The Future Movement, led by Hariris son Saad, a former prime minister himself, has been adamant in its support for the Syrian rebels as well as vocal about the role that Syria and Hezbollah are alleged to have played in the elder Hariris death. Releasing a statement from exile in France, Saad Hariri, who refuses to return to Lebanon out of security concerns, declared that Chatahs killers were the same men who had killed his father.
Those who assassinated Mohammed Chatah are the ones who assassinated Rafik Hariri, and want to assassinate Lebanon and weaken the state, he said in the statement.
Five members of Hezbollah are expected to face an international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, early next year but they havent been apprehended by authorities despite living more or less openly in southern Beiruts Hezbollah-dominated suburbs.
Lebanons support and funding for that tribunal remain a viciously partisan affair in the countrys politics, with Hezbollah and its backers – often supporters of the Syria regime – adamant that the trial shouldnt be funded by the Lebanese government. Backers of Hariri have called for the trial to continue and the suspects to be turned over to international authorities.
In the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the attack on behalf of President Barack Obama.