BEIRUT: Former Lebanese Minister Mohamad Chatah, who opposed Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and four other people were killed in a massive bomb blast that targeted his car in Beirut yesterday, security sources said. Chatah, 62, a Sunni Muslim, was also a critic of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement and an adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri.

His killing occurred three weeks before the long-delayed opening of a trial of five Hezbollah suspects indicted for the Feb 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, Saad’s father, and 21 other people. Hezbollah has denied involvement in the 2005 attack. Preliminary UN investigations implicated Syrian officials.

The deadly car bomb that ripped through downtown Beirut shook buildings and rattled windows, triggering fear among many people that “nowhere is safe” anymore in Lebanon. The country, which fought a long civil war between 1975 and 1990, is no stranger to violence and has seen a rise in attacks linked to the fighting in neighboring Syria, but yesterday’s explosion in the heart of Beirut brought the unrest even closer to home.

Street cleaner Ali Aoun was carrying out his daily chores when the car exploded, killing six people, including prominent anti-Syria politician Mohammad Chatah. “The pressure of the blast was so powerful. All the buildings shook around me,” he said as he swept up piles of broken glass outside a badly damaged office building.  “I can’t believe I am still alive.”

Chatah was an advisor to Saad Hariri, whose late father, the billionaire prime minister Rafiq Hariri, led the rebuilding of the city centre after it was reduced to rubble in the civil war, which claimed an estimated 150,000 lives. But the elder Hariri, a prime minister, was killed in a massive explosion targeting his convoy in 2005, just blocks away from yesterday’s blast. “This area is supposed to be safe, perhaps the safest in all the country,” said Ziad, a businessman who gave only his first name.

A tweet posted on his Twitter account less than an hour before the blast accused the Shiite movement of trying to take control of the country. “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years,” the tweet read. 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 conflict in neighboring Syria has polarized Lebanon and ratcheted up sectarian tensions. Hezbollah has sent fighters to Syria to fight alongside Assad, who comes from the Alawite sect, a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam. Some of the Sunni Syrian rebel groups are linked to al Qaeda, which is also seeking to topple Assad. Former minister Marwan Hamadeh, who survived a car bombing in 2004, told Al Arabiya television: “Hezbollah will not be able to rule Lebanon, no matter how much destruction it causes or blood it spills”.

KUWAITIS SAFE
Meanwhile, Kuwait Embassy in Beirut reassured that all Kuwaitis, both citizens and diplomats, are safe and sound after an explosion. In a statement, the embassy said that all Kuwaiti citizens are safe and that it condemns such a terrorist act that led to the death of the innocent and the destruction of properties. The Embassy called on all Kuwaiti nationals to contact these local numbers in case of emergency or help: 71582888 – 71171441 – 03041166. Earlier, Kuwait Foreign Ministry advised Kuwaiti citizens to leave Lebanon for their safety. Due to the ongoing instability in the country, this cautionary advice is still in effect.

CAR WRECKED
Sources at the explosion site said Chatah was on his way to attend a meeting at Hariri’s headquarters when the explosion tore through his car. Hariri himself has stayed away from Lebanon for more than two years, fearing for his safety. A Reuters witness at the scene said his car was “totally destroyed, it is a wreck.” Chatah’s identity card, torn and charred, was found inside his car.

Iran, which backs Hezbollah, came under attack in Beirut last month. On Nov 19, two suicide bombings rocked the embassy compound in Lebanon, killing at least 25 people including an Iranian cultural attache and hurling bodies and burning wreckage across a debris-strewn street. A Lebanon-based Al- Qaeda-linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility and threatened further attacks unless Iran withdraws forces from Syria, where they have backed Assad’s 2-1/2-year-old war against rebels.

The sound of yesterday’s blast was heard across the city at around 9:40 am and a plume of black smoke was seen rising in the downtown business and hotel district. It shattered glass in nearby apartment blocks and damaged restaurants, coffee shops and offices in the chic district of downtown Beirut. “I heard a huge explosion and saw a ball of fire and palls of black smoke. We run out of our offices to the streets,” said Hassan Akkawi, who works in a finance company nearby.- Agencies