Beirut car bomb assassinates former finance minister

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Army inspect explosion site in downtown Beirut (Photo: Al-Akhbar - Marc Abizeid)

Friday, December 27, 2013

A car bomb rocked the downtown area of Beirut Friday morning, killing Mohammed Shattah, a former finance minister and senior adviser to ex-prime minister, Saad Hariri.

According to the ministry of health, the number of dead has increased to six, with another four people still missing. The number of people injured has surpassed 70, and is expected to rise.

Ali Hassan Khalil, Lebanon's health minister, has called on all hospitals in the area to keep their doors open to receive those injured from the explosion.

The sound of the blast was heard across the city at 9:40am, and a plume of black smoke was seen rising in the downtown business and hotel district. Several unconfirmed reports state that 50-60 kilograms of explosives were used as Shattah and his convoy were on their way to attend a meeting.

The explosion comes a month after a suicide attack at the Iranian embassy in south Beirut killed 23 people and wounded a further 146.

Lebanese president Michel Suleiman called the bombing a "cowardly act" and "would not sway the Lebanese from protecting their country." The Lebanese president also urged all Lebanese to work and help form a unified government, warning that a continuation of the state of affairs will leave the country vulnerable.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati denounced Friday's assassination in a statement issued by his press office.

“The assassination targeted a moderate figure who believed in dialogue, logic, the voice of reason and the right of having different points of views,” Miqati said.

The caretaker PM also condemned all the acts that only lead to further violence and killings, considering that “it only inflict farther chaos and damages to the nation.”

“The misery must end and Lebanon and its people should live in peace,” he added.

Shattah was staunch critic of Hezbollah and the Syrian government. Just prior to his death, he tweeted:

For his part, former PM Saad Hariri wrote on Twitter:

"Those who assassinated Mohammed Shattah are those who assassinated Rafik Hariri, and they want to assassinate Lebanon, and sully the state's nose in humiliation, weakness, and emptiness."

Speaking to the press, Ali Fayyad, a Hezbollah MP, strongly condemned the bombing and added, "The aim of this crime is to weaken the security and unity of the country and further bloodshed. Our priority is to ensure that that doesn't happen. We [at Hezbollah] are concerned about the situation, and we want to make sure that dialogue between all parties continues.”

Hadi Hobeich, Future Movement MP, pointed the finger at Hezbollah. Speaking to LBC, he said, "The crime today is pushing conflict in [Lebanon]. The criminals are trying to pressure March 14 and that will not happen. They are killing our members but [these acts] will not sway our goals and aims. We will only become much more rigid.”

He also stated that he believed that there was a "connection between Shattah's assassination and the delay of the Special Tribunal of Lebanon regarding [Rafik] Hariri's assassination."

Fouad Siniora, former Lebanese prime minister and a supporter of Hariri, called for the referral of Shattah's murderers to the Special Tribunal during a brief press conference.

"Shatah was killed at the hands of the murderer whom you all know. This same criminal threatens us on a daily basis. The criminal will not be victorious," he said.

In response to these statements, the Syrian information minister Omran al-Zoubi said that the accusation made by Siniora are "desperate attempts to hide his role in supporting and funding terrorism in Lebanon and the region and providing safe havens to terrorists, particularly the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic Front, under the patronage of Saad al-Hariri and his kings and princes."

"We want peace and security to the Lebanese people and we call upon all honest persons in Lebanon to stand against terrorism that some Lebanese sides are shielding and protecting," the Syrian minister added.

Relatives of those in the area are reportedly having difficulty accessing the site and are having trouble contacting their loved one. On this matter, an official for the High Committee of Rescue stated to the press that the area was currently cordon off as emergency crews are helping clear the destruction and are providing medical help to those who have been wounded.

A call out for blood donations have been made for the victims of the explosion. Donors are asked to head immediately to the American University of Beirut Medical Center and the Clemenceau Medical Center to help.

Footage from various local channels showed people on fire and others lying on the ground, some bloodied, while ambulances rushed to the stricken area.

A restaurant and a coffee shop were destroyed in the blast, and several cars were on fire, the witness said to AFP, adding that there was glass everywhere and the smell of explosives filled the air.

Much of Beirut went into lockdown following the explosion, with police blocking off roads across the city.

According to several other eye witnesses, the impact of the explosion shook several buildings in the vicinity of the site.

Tarek Omar, a 24-year-old employee of a nearby bank, described to Al-Akhbar how he was stuck in the elevator when the explosion struck.

"The power went out and after 15 minutes we were finally able to rejoin our colleagues," he said. "Everyone was panicking, all the women were screaming."

"We were all very scared."

Hassan Naous, 35, told Al-Akhbar's correspondent that he was around the corner from the blast. “We didn't know where the explosion occurred. We didn't know if it was behind us or in front of us. So we just ran where ever we could because we were afraid of a second explosion,” he said.

“I want to leave [Lebanon],” he added.

Similarly, construction workers digging underground at a near-by site felt the blast.

"We didn't see what happened, but we felt the vibrations despite all our equipment running. It knocked the construction barrier down," they said.

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