A bomb ripped through a vocal anti-Syrian lawmaker’s car near the popular waterfront in the Lebanese capital Wednesday, killing him and nine other people in the latest assassination of a Lebanese opponent of Damascus.The blast, a new blow to the stability of this conflict-torn nation, comes days after the government began putting together an international tribunal ordered by the United Nations to try suspects in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut two years ago a move strongly opposed by Syria and its allies in Lebanon.
The slain lawmaker, Walid Eido, was a prominent supporter of the tribunal and a close friend of Hariri. He is the seventh anti-Syrian figure killed in Lebanon in the past two years, starting with the February 2005 death of Hariri in a massive Beirut suicide car bombing. Many Lebanese have accused Syria of being behind the slayings, a claim Damascus denies.
Eido’s supporters quickly blamed Syria for Wednesday’s bomb attack. Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, the leader of the anti-Syrian majority bloc in parliament, indirectly accused Damascus, saying “agencies of evil” seeking “Lebanon’s submission” carried out the blast.
Lebanon’s majority coalition accused Syria out right.
“This crime is a clear message from the Syrian regime to Lebanon in response to the creation of the international tribunal,” said a statement read by lawmaker Bassem Sabei.
Syria controlled Lebanon for 29 years until it was forced out after Hariri’s assassination, and its Lebanese opponents believe it is seeking to regain domination by plunging the country into chaos.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora declared a national day of mourning Thursday for Eido and the other victims. He also called for an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers and the international community to help in the investigation of the legislator’s assassination.
“Lebanon and the Lebanese will not submit to terrorism or intimidation. We will not surrender to terrorism and we will triumph. Lebanon will survive,” Saniora said in a televised speech Wednesday night.
President Bush a major Saniora ally condemned the bombing and pledged “the United States will continue to stand up for Lebanon, its people, and its legitimate government as they face these attacks.”
Bush noted the victims of the spate of attacks “have always been those who sought an end to Syrian President (Bashar) Assad’s interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.”
He said efforts by both Syria and Iran “to foment instability in Lebanon must stop now.”
Asked if Washington saw Syria’s hand in the attack, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “I can’t tell you at this point, but very clearly this is the work of those who intend or want to undermine Lebanese democracy.”
The U.N. Security Council also condemned the attack, without pointing the finger at any country.
Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said the bombing appeared aimed at influencing an upcoming U.N. report on security along the Lebanon-Syria border. The study was authorized following reports of weapons smuggling from Syria.
“This is why we think that these criminal hands have one objective, which is to target the Lebanese-Syrian relationship,” he told The Associated Press.
The slaying was likely to further enflame Lebanon’s bitter power struggle between Saniora’s Western-backed government and its Syrian-backed opponents, led by the Hezbollah militant group. Many fear the violence could push the polarized nation with a fragile balance of ethnic and religious groups into a new civil war.
Wednesday’s blast also came as Lebanon is dealing with a separate conflict that threatens to spiral out of control: a nearly four-week battle with al-Qaida-inspired militants barricaded inside a Palestinian refugee camp near the northern city of Tripoli. More than 140 people have been killed in the Lebanese army’s siege of the Nahr el-Bared camp.
The bomb ripped through Eido’s black Mercedes just before 6 p.m. on a narrow side street off the Beirut Corniche in Manara, a mainly Sunni Muslim sector of the capital where the 65-year-old Eido often went in the afternoons to play cards with friends. The palm tree-lined boulevard along the Mediterranean shoreline is a favorite among Beirutis for evening strolls.
The explosion gutted Eido’s car and left others nearby in flames, shattering windows in nearby apartments and strewing the street with rubble. A woman, screaming and covered in blood, was pulled from the carnage by residents who rushed to help. Body parts were thrown on a nearby soccer field.
Eido’s 35-year-old son, two bodyguards and six passers-by were also killed in the explosion, security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In the Aisha Bakkar neighborhood where Eido lived, a small number of his supporters burned car tires and blocked a street. “Syria is after us,” one shouted to local TV cameras. Troops intervened to prevent the protest from getting out of control.
The Lebanese military and police had already imposed heavy security measures around Beirut in reaction to a series of bomb blasts that have hit the capital since the Nahr el-Bared fighting began. Those explosions killed two people, yet another layer of instability rattling the country.
Syria’s top allies in Lebanon, President Emile Lahoud and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, joined the chorus of those condemning Wednesday’s bombing. Hezbollah called it part of a “cycle of roaming terrorism targeting Lebanon and its stability” and urged national unity to confront it.
But Saad Hariri all but openly put the blame on Syria. In a televised speech, he called for Arab nations and the international community to boycott the “terrorist regime that is attacking Lebanon.”
The issue of the international tribunal has sharply divided Lebanon. The U.N. called for its creation months ago to try suspects in Rafik Hariri’s assassination and in other killings if they prove to be connected. But Hezbollah and its allies have blocked Lebanese approval for the tribunal, preventing parliament from meeting for months to vote on the measure.
With the government paralyzed, Saniora and his supporters asked the U.N. to impose the tribunal’s creation. The Security Council did so with a May 30 resolution, bringing denunciations from Hezbollah and its allies. Syria has said it will not cooperate with the court.