A powerful car bomb tore through a business district in the center of the Lebanese capital Friday, killing a prominent pro-Western politician and at least five other people. The assassination will likely hike sectarian tensions in the country, already soaring because of the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The blast, which wounded more than 70 others, set cars ablaze, shredded trees and shattered windows in a main street of the posh downtown Beirut area, home to five-star hotels, luxury high-rises and high-end boutiques. It sent a pall of thick black smoke above the nearby government headquarters.
The bomb targeted the car of Mohammed Chatah, a former finance minister and a senior aide to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, security officials said. Chatah, his driver and four others were killed, the National News Agency said.
Hariri, a Sunni politician, heads the main, Western-backed coalition in Lebanon, which is engaged in a bitter feud with the Shia Hezbollah group, a top ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hariri accused Hezbollah of involvement in Friday's bomb attack.
"As far as we are concerned the suspects ... are those who are fleeing international justice and refusing to represent themselves before the international tribunal," Hariri said, referring to five Hezbollah suspects indicted for the 2005 killing of his father Rafik, also a former prime minister.
More recently, the country has seen a wave of violence as Lebanon's Sunni and Shia communities support their brethren on opposing sides in Syria's civil war. 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 more serious sectarian violence.
"We received the criminals' bloody message, and we reply that Lebanon will remain free as tyrants will fall," said Fouad Saniora, the head of the March 14 group, an anti-Hezbollah political coalition.
The Friday morning blast was heard across the city, shattering the calm of the downtown commercial district.
"We heard an explosion that shook us like an earthquake," Wajdi Abdul-Khaliq, a foreman at a nearby construction site, told the AP. He said he ran out of the site and saw several wounded in the street, including a woman in her car who lost her hand.
The army cordoned off the area to prevent people from getting close to 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.
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 Health Ministry said more than 70 people were wounded.
Security officials said Chatah was on the way to a meeting at Hariri's downtown residence when the bomb hit.
The 62-year-old Chatah was a prominent economist who once worked at the International Monetary Fund in the U.S. and later served as Lebanese ambassador to the U.S. He was one of the closest aides of Rafik Hariri.
He later became finance minister when Saad took over the premiership and stayed on as his senior adviser after he lost the post in early 2011.
Friday's blast came less than three weeks before the trial for those suspected in Rafik Hariri's assassination was set to begin. Five Hezbollah members have been accused of involvement in the killing. Hezbollah rejects the accusations, and has refused to hand over the suspects.
Hariri's 2005 assassination sparked massive demonstrations that eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, following nearly three decades of military presence.
Chatah’s last tweet, posted an hour before Friday's explosion, read: "Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 yrs."
Al Jazeera and wire services