BEIRUT: Lebanon edged closer to full-blown chaos Friday after former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah, a senior aide to Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, was assassinated in a car bombing in Downtown Beirut that also killed five other people.
In a statement shortly after the attack, Hariri indirectly accused Hezbollah of being behind the explosion.
“Those who assassinated Mohammad Shatah are the ones who assassinated Rafik Hariri; they are the ones who want to assassinate Lebanon,” the former prime minister said.
“The suspects are those who are running away from international justice and refuse to appear in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; they are the ones opening the window of evil and chaos to Lebanon and the Lebanese and are drawing regional fires,” he added.
Hariri later told a TV station that the March 14 politicians were not afraid and that the STL trials would start on Jan. 16 “and this will be the beginning of the fall of the cowards.”
“Anger exists and we are heartbroken and we will remain heartbroken. But wisdom is needed so that we can build the Lebanon we dream of,” he added.
Hariri told another TV station that since the March 14 alliance is being targeted, they will start calling for the formation of a March 14 government instead of a neutral one.
For its part, the March 14 coalition called for an international investigation into the crime.
“We demand and affirm the need to refer this crime to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” said former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, surrounded by March 14 officials and lawmakers in a televised address following a meeting for the coalition at Hariri’s residence in Downtown Beirut.
The alliance implicitly accused Syrian President Bashar Assad “and his Lebanese allies” of being behind Shatah’s assassination.
“It is the same killer and its Lebanese allies in Deraa, Aleppo and all Syria,” Siniora said. Damascus, however, denied the allegations.
Sources attending the meeting told The Daily Star that attendees opposed a proposal by one of the coalition’s MPs to isolate Hezbollah.
The sources said they discussed calling on President Michel Sleiman to immediately form a government before Sunday. Sleiman called for a meeting of the Higher Defense Council at 9 a.m. Saturday at Baabda Palace to discuss the deadly explosion.
A security source told The Daily Star that Shatah’s car was making its way in the capital’s bustling central district at around 9:45 a.m. when the explosion went off, killing the former minister, his bodyguard and four others. The blast also wounded 70 people, most of whom left hospital after receiving treatment.
Shatah was headed to Hariri’s Downtown residence, where a meeting of the March 14 coalition was underway.
Friends and critics agree that Shatah, 62, who hailed from the northern city of Tripoli, was a voice of moderation in the March 14 alliance.
He was former finance minister in Siniora’s government from July 2008 to November 2009. Funeral prayers will be held at the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque in Downtown Beirut Sunday at noon. He will be buried near the grave of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in the area.
The March 14 alliance called for a large turnout at the Sunday funeral.
At the site of the explosion, civilians 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 Firas al-Sheikh, a waiter at a cafe 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 explained.
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.
The explosion damaged six buildings, 14 shops and 42 vehicles which were parked along the street.
The security source said that the rigged car was a Honda CRV stolen in 2012 in the coastal village of Saadiyat, south of Beirut.
Other security sources said that CCTV cameras at the crime scene detected that at 8 a.m. a man removed a red minivan that was parked in the area overnight. In its place, a driver parked the rigged golden Honda CRV. Both men left in the red minivan. The vehicle was detonated by remote control an hour and a half later as Shatah’s car drove past it.
Acting State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud, who visited the site, estimated the bomb weighed between 50 and 60 kilograms. He denied reports that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, saying the explosive device was remotely detonated.
Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr also visited the crime scene.
Saqr tasked the general directorate of Army Intelligence, Military Police, Internal Security Forces Information Branch and forensic experts with carrying out investigation. A tent was erected at the site to protect the crime scene, which was cordoned off by Friday afternoon.
No arrests were made, but authorities heard the testimonies of people who were close to the scene of the explosion, the security source said.
Shatah’s killing comes three weeks before the U.N.-backed STL begins the trial of four Hezbollah suspects over the 2005 assassination of Hariri, the founder of the Future Movement.
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.
Hezbollah condemned Shatah’s killing, describing it as a heinous crime that only served Lebanon’s enemies.
For his part, Sleiman denounced this “terrorist crime that claimed the life of former Minister Mohammad Shatah, this moderate, pro-dialogue figure.” He reiterated his calls for Lebanese leaders to cooperate to form a government that assumes its national responsibilities.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who cut short his holiday in London, condemned the assassination.
“We condemn this assassination, which targeted a respected, moderate political and academic figure who believed in dialogue, the language of reason and logic and the right to difference of opinion,” the caretaker premier said in a statement.
Speaker Nabih Berri said Shatah’s assassination was “aimed at transforming Lebanon into an arena for settling scores and stirring sectarian strife.”
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt also condemned the crime, saying it should be faced with more moderation.
“The assassination of former Minister Shatah is a very negative message to all moderates that should be confronted with further moderation,” he said in a statement. The PSP leader telephoned Hariri and extended his condolences.
Meanwhile, politicians flocked to the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque in Downtown Beirut Friday evening where Siniora and other March 14 officials were receiving condolences.
Paying their respects were Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam and a host of lawmakers.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Ambassador David Hale, French Ambassador Patrice Paoli, EU Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst and other diplomats paid respects at the residence of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Downtown Beirut, where the March 14 alliance was meeting. Shatah’s family received condolences at his home in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut. – Additional reporting by Kareem Shaheen