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March 14 vows to ‘liberate’ Lebanon
Relatives carry the coffin of slain former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah during his funeral procession in Beirut, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
Relatives carry the coffin of slain former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah during his funeral procession in Beirut, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
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BEIRUT: Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora vowed Sunday that the March 14 coalition would liberate Lebanon from the occupation of Hezbollah’s “illegitimate arms,” as angry mourners laid to rest former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah with chants of slogans against the party.

Shatah, 62, a political adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was killed in a car bomb explosion along with seven others in the commercial district of Downtown Beirut Friday, in an incident that has heightened sectarian and political tensions in a country already reeling under the repercussions of the 33-month war in Syria.

Hariri, head of the Future Movement, has indirectly blamed Hezbollah for the explosion, which also wounded 70 people.

The Lebanese Army and policemen, backed by military vehicles, tightened security in and around the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque in Downtown Beirut, where the bodies of Shatah and his bodyguard Tarek Badr were brought for prayers and burial. All roads and intersections leading to the area were cut off by Army vehicles and trucks.

“There is no God but Allah and Hezbollah is the enemy of Allah,” outraged mourners chanted as Shatah’s coffin, draped in a green and gold cloth with religious verses on it, was carried shoulder high to the mosque, where former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, also killed in a car bomb, was buried in 2005.

“There is no God but Allah, the martyr is the beloved of Allah,” the mourners chanted as the two bodies arrived. Some mourners also shouted slogans against Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, calling his group a “terrorist” party.

One young man unfurled a black and white Islamist flag, to the delight of some and the obvious discomfort of others. One young man shouted “God is with the Nusra Front.”

Shatah was buried at Hariri’s mausoleum. Hundreds of mourners gathered, including distraught members of Shatah’s family and political dignitaries. Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, and lawmakers from the Future bloc and the March 14 coalition were among those in attendance.

Inside the mosque, the coffins were laid side by side, and relatives of the two men stood by them, weeping.

Addressing the large crowd gathered at the mosque shortly after Shatah and Badr were buried, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora pledged that the March 14 coalition would launch “a peaceful and democratic struggle” to liberate Lebanon from the occupation of what he termed “illegitimate arms,” a clear reference to Hezbollah’s arsenal.

Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, said the situation before Shatah’s assassination would not be the same after his death, signaling a toughening of the March 14 coalition’s stance in its political standoff with the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance.

“We have decided to liberate the nation from the occupation of illegitimate arms to protect its independence and safeguard its sovereignty and civil peace,” Siniora said.

“We say to the Lebanese and the family of Mohammad Shatah: We will not surrender, back down or fear criminals, terrorists and killers. They are the ones who should be in fear because they are killers,” he added.

“They kill so they can tighten their control [over the country],” Siniora said in a clear reference to Hezbollah, its March 8 allies and the Syrian regime.

“But we reiterate our commitment to a Lebanon of common coexistence, civil peace, freedom, democracy, equality, respect of human rights, a peaceful rotation of power and respect for the Constitution,” he said.

“We uphold our decision to confront [the killers]. We are advocates of freedom and justice. Our decision is to go with Lebanon’s peaceful people to a peaceful, civilian and democratic resistance,” Siniora added.

Siniora said Shatah was killed in “broad daylight in cold blood without shame or hesitation,” adding that the perpetrators repeat their crimes thinking they will get away with it.

“They indulge in killing, destroy the economy and living conditions, and damage Lebanon’s ties with its Arab surroundings and the world. But we will not turn into killers and destroy Lebanon like they do,” Siniora said.

“We will keep Lebanon an arena for freedom, dialogue, communication and reconciliation, rather than an arena for strife and fighting,” he added.

Siniora, whose Future bloc has consistently blamed Hezbollah’s arms for the country’s deepening political crisis and worsening security and economic conditions, said the March 14 coalition rejected “bullying, terrorism, extremism and violence.”

Shatah, a veteran diplomat, was on his way to a meeting of the March 14 coalition at Hariri’s residence in Beirut when the car bomb targeting him was detonated by remote control.Seen as a moderate figure in the March 14 coalition and the Sunni community, Shatah was a former finance minister and a former ambassador to the U.S.

Hariri, who has been living abroad for over two years for security reasons, has implicitly blamed Hezbollah for Shatah’s assassination, while the March 14 coalition has accused Syria and its Lebanese allies of the killing.

Shatah’s assassination was the latest serious incident following a string of car bombings and suicide attacks that targeted Hezbollah areas in Beirut’s southern suburbs, two mosques in the northern city of Tripoli, the Iranian Embassy in Beirut and the Lebanese Army in Sidon. The bombings, which killed more than 100 people and wounded hundreds, were directly linked to the conflict in Syria.

Tripoli Mufti Sheikh Malek Shaar, who led the prayers for Shatah and Badr at the Beirut mosque, said voices of moderation would prevail in Lebanon and that a new government would be formed soon for the country’s interest.

Although Lebanon has been left without a functioning government for nine months after Salam had failed to set up a new Cabinet, Shaar sounded optimistic that a government would be formed soon to address the people’s problems.

“A Cabinet will be formed soon without spite but with consensus for the country’s interest and the citizens’ security so that Lebanon would remain sovereign, free and independent,” Shaar said.

The investigation into Shatah’s killing was shrouded in secrecy, as forensic experts collected from the bombing site twisted metal and broken pieces from the explosives-rigged car for evidence.

The Fatah Movement has handed over Talal al-Urdouni, a Palestinian in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near the southern city of Sidon, to the Lebanese Army Intelligence to question him over a stolen car used in the bombing, the National News Agency reported. The car reportedly came from Ain al-Hilweh.

The Lebanese Army denied it had disseminated any information about the ongoing investigation into Shatah’s assassination. “The investigation is still shrouded in secrecy and is in the custody of security agencies tasked with this at the request of the judiciary.”

Media reports said investigators were examining and analyzing surveillance cameras installed at the explosion site near Starco building in central Beirut.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah MP Hussein Musawi rejected the March 14 accusations that linked the party to Shatah’s assassination. Hezbollah has condemned the assassination, saying it was aimed at sabotaging the country.

“Wise people have always said that hasty accusations harm the ongoing investigation and the unified stance against the criminals,” Musawi said in a statement. “The core problem some people have with us is that we believe there is a need to fight the Zionist germ to save our future.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 30, 2013, on page 1.
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