BEIRUT: Former Minister Mohammad Shatah, a senior aide to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was killed along with five other people in a car bomb blast in Downtown Beirut Friday, a security source said.
The March 14 coalition, which is headed by the Future Movement, pointed the finger of blame at the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, which swiftly denied the allegations.
Shatah’s vehicle was making its way in the capital’s bustling central district at the time of the explosion, which also killed Mohammad Tareq Badr, the former finance minister’s bodyguard, the source said, adding that 70 people were also wounded in the blast that struck at around 9.45 a.m.
The 62-year-old, who was also a close aide to former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, was headed to Hariri’s Downtown residence where a meeting of the March 14 coalition was under way.
His killing comes days before the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon begins the trial of four Hezbollah suspects over the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the founder of the Future Movement.
Civil Defense teams and Lebanese Red Cross ambulances rushed to the scene of the explosion where body parts were seen scattered along the commercial street.
A Civil Defense volunteer told The Daily Star that most of the casualties suffered shrapnel and severe burn wounds, saying the bodies of some of the victims were completely charred.
“We arrived quickly. Cars were still on fire. We took victims and wounded people to hospitals,” a fireman from the nearby Karantina brigade told The daily Star. “Is there anything more criminal than this?” he asked.
Residents in the area also described the carnage left in the blast’s wake.
"We ran down like madmen. We saw people lying on the street; we saw mangled cars, broken glass and twisted metal scattered everywhere,” said local Firas al-Sheikh, a waiter at a café in the area.
"I can't believe what happened ... I had just gotten up from bed when I heard the blast. We first thought it was a rocket," he said. “From the extent of the damage we [then] knew it was probably a car bomb," Sheikh said as he checked the damage some 100 meters from the blast scene.
The explosion damaged six buildings, 14 shops and 42 vehicles which were parked along the street, the state-run National News Agency said.
Acting State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud, who visited the site of the explosion, estimated the bomb weighed between 50 kilograms and 60 kilograms. He denied reports saying the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, saying the explosive device was remotely detonated.
The security source said the vehicle used in the bombing was a Honda CRV stolen in 2012 in Saadeyat, Mount Lebanon.
Siniora, speaking on behalf of the March 14 alliance hours after the incident, implicitly accused President Bashar Assad of being behind Shatah’s assassination but Damascus denied the allegations.
Earlier, Saad Hariri suggested Hezbollah, Assad’s ally in Lebanon, likely played a role. In a statement, Hezbollah condemned the killing, describing it as a heinous crime that only served Lebanon’s enemies.
French President Francois Hollande contacted President Michel Sleiman and denoucned the assassination, urging the Lebanese to remain united to preserve Lebanon’s stability, according to a Baabda Palace statement.
U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly said he was shocked and deeply saddened by the car bombing in Beirut and described Shatah as a “good friend and a wise, courageous and patriotic man, who had consistently sought to promote dialogue and Lebanon’s well-being.”
In a statement, Plumbly stressed the need to bring to justice those responsible for “this and other terrorist acts as well as the need for restraint at this difficult time and for all Lebanese to come together in support of institutions of the state and the security forces as they seek to safeguard the country.”
Lebanon has been rocked by a series of car bombs and suicide bombings this year linked to the ongoing conflict in Syria. The deadly attacks have mostly targeted Hezbollah strongholds and the Lebanese Army.
Earlier this month, caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel warned that clandestine groups would attempt to destabilize the country ahead of the STL trial, next year’s presidential election and the Geneva 2 peace conference on Syria.
The U.N.-backed court has scheduled Jan. 16, 2014 as the date for the start of trials of the suspects. A fifth Hezbollah member was also indicted in the case by the STL in August.
Siniora urged Friday that the Hague-based court also investigate Shatah’s assassination.
Lebanon’s president called for a meeting of the Higher Defense Council for Saturday at 9 a.m. at Baabda Palace.