BEIRUT: A car bomb killed a pro-government MP and at least seven others in Beirut on Wednesday, just days before the Lebanese Parliament is due to elect a new president for the country, with many fingering Syria as the culprit.
Alongside one of the busiest roads in Beirut, a booby-trapped car shook the densely populated and mostly Christian neighborhood of Horsh Tabet in Sin al-Fil - killing MP Antoine Ghanem and six others.
Ghanem, 64, was a low-key legislator from the Christian Phalange Party. He was the eighth prominent anti-Syrian figure assassinated since 2005, and the fourth lawmaker from the ruling coalition to be killed, reducing the ruling majority's voting weight in Parliament - with pro-government lawmakers holding 68 of Parliament's 128 seats, compared to the opposition's 59.
"Syria is back and is killing off more of our anti-Syrian politicians!" cried a bloodied Emile Abou Hamad, whose car-rental business near the site of the blast sustained heavy damage, echoing similar angry accusations by pro-government officials.
After a respite of three months since the last assassination - that of another pro-government MP, Walid Eido, - Lebanese tuned into familiar television images of shattered glass, burning cars, and rescue teams recovering mangled corpses.
Security sources estimated that the device contained 20-30 kilograms of TNT and was detonated by remote control as Ghanem's car passed by, wounding 56 people in the process.
Pro-government officials tied the slaying of Ghanem directly to the upcoming parliamentary vote, saying the killing aimed to deprive the ruling coalition of its majority.
The upcoming presidential election has exacerbated the already deep political divide between the majority and opposition forces, with looming fears of two governments if the two sides don't agree before President Emile Lahoud's term expires on November 24.
Sharp condemnations of the latest assassination poured in from the US, Britain, Russia, France, Italy, EU and the UN Security Council, as well as Syria.
Unlike the last assassination, Damascus was quick to condemn the killing of Ghanem, describing it as a "criminal act" aimed at undermining Syrian efforts at patching up relations with Lebanon.
Lebanon has witnessed a string of assassinations and explosions in the last couple of years that claimed the lives of many politicians and civilians. Most of these explosions were blamed on Syria, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
After the assassination of Eido in June, Ghanem and other 40 other pro-government March 14 MPs traveled abroad for their safety and returned to Lebanon just two ago to stay at rented rooms at the upscale Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel under strict security measures.
This procedure was undertaken by the state to protect the MPs during the 60-day presidential election process, which begins on September 25 and ends on November 24.
Ghanem's security concerns were clearly illustrated by the fact that he was driving through the capital in a car with regular license plates, his blue parliamentary - No. 133 - hidden in the trunk of the car.
In the first few minutes after the blast, the identities of the others killed were not immediately known, and when the name "Ghanem" was declared, many onlookers took it to mean another MP, Robert Ghanem, one of the majority's three officially declared candidates for the presidency .
The other majority candidates are MP Butros Harb and the head of the Democratic Renewal Movement, former MP Nassib Lahoud. The only opposition candidate thus far is MP Michel Aoun, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement.
Later in the evening, TV broadcasts showed fistfights erupting in other parts of the capital, with fears of violence erupting between pro-government and opposition supporters.
Thursday was declared an official day of mourning, with the Beirut Merchants Association joining the Phalange in calling for all businesses to remain closed. The Education Ministry announced that all school and university classes were cancelled on Thursday and Friday, when the funeral is to take place.
Speaker Nabih Berri has called for a two-thirds quorum of members of Parliament from the 128-seat House to be present on September 25. To garner the necessary quorum for electing a president, a compromise must be reached by the feuding parties. The opposition has threatened to boycott the vote and deny Parliament its required two-thirds quorum, thereby blocking the process.
In turn, the majority has threatened to go ahead and choose a president from its own ranks with a simple majority.
Berri has called for both sides to agree to a consensus president, but there are no plans for the opposing sides to meet.
At the same time, the incumbent, Emile Lahoud, has said he would appoint an interim government headed by the army commander, General Michel Suleiman, if rival factions cannot agree on a new head of a state.