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A body lies beside a flame blazing on a vehicle at the scene of a blast in Beirut

BEIRUT, Dec 27, (Agencies): A huge car bomb blast in central Beirut Friday killed six people including an influential member of a coalition opposed to the Syrian regime, leaving cars ablaze and buildings wrecked. Tensions have soared in Lebanon since the outbreak of the war in neighbouring Syria, as the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement has sent troops to back the regime while their rivals in the Western-backed March 14 coalition have supported the Sunni-led rebels. State news agency NNA said Mohammad Chatah, 62, was killed in the blast as he headed to a meeting of the March 14 coalition at the mansion of ex-premier Saad Hariri. Dozens were wounded in the explosion. Chatah, an influential economist, former finance minister and ex-envoy to Washington, had served as adviser to ex-premier Fuad Siniora and remained a close aide to his successor, Hariri, who has lived abroad since 2011 for security reasons. Hariri’s father, billionaire ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, was killed in a massive seafront blast in 2005 just blocks away from Friday’s explosion, in an assassination his supporters blamed on Syria. Friday’s blast sent thick black smoke across the capital and over the Grand Serail, a huge Ottoman-era complex housing the offices of the prime minister. Footage broadcast on Future TV showed people with their clothes on fire and others lying on the ground, bloodied and in shock, as ambulances and security forces raced to the scene.

NNA said more than 50 people were wounded and more than 10 buildings badly damaged by the blast, which prosecutor general Samir Hammud said was caused by 50-60 kilos (110-132 pounds) of explosives. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, the first in recent times to have struck the commercial and banking district of Beirut, which is also home to government offices and parliament. The March 14 coalition implied Damascus and Hezbollah were behind the attack without naming them, saying in a statement that “the criminal is the same, he who is thirsty for the blood of Syrians... he and his Lebanese allies”. Hariri said those responsible for Chatah’s murder, are “those who are hiding from international justice and who have spread the regional fire to the (Lebanese) nation ... and who killed Rafiq Hariri”. Hezbollah did not react to March 14’s implicit accusation, but said the bombing was aimed at destroying “national unity”. Syria denied the “wrong and arbitrary accusations,” saying “some figures in Lebanon have never stopped accusing (Damascus) every time a painful assassination takes place in the brother country Lebanon”.

Kuwait, meanwhile, condemned the terrorist attack that, killed former Lebanese finance minister and others, said a Foreign Ministry statement. The statement noted that the criminal act has shaken the stability, the security and the national unity of Lebanon. It urged all the Lebanese factions to exercise self-restraint at this difficult time. Kuwait reiterated its stance against terrorism and the necessity to collaborate with international community to put a stop to it, the statement went on saying It concluded by extending condolences to the families of the victims and wishes of speedy recovery to the injured. Kuwait Embassy in Beirut reassured that all Kuwaiti nationals, both citizens and diplomats, are safe and sound after the explosion rocked the capital earlier Friday and claimed the lives of many. In a statement, the embassy said that all Kuwaiti citizens are safe and that it condemns such a terrorist act that led to the death of the innocent and the destruction of properties. The Embassy called on all Kuwaiti nationals to contact these local numbers in case of emergency or help: 71582888 — 71171441 — 03041166. Earlier, Kuwait Foreign Ministry advised Kuwaiti citizens to leave Lebanon for their safety. Due to the ongoing instability in the country, this cautionary advice is still in effect. Early Friday, a fiery blast rocked downtown Beirut and killed advisor to the former premier Saad Al-Hariri, Mohammad Shatah, and five others. It also wounded 75 people. Lebanon has been witnessing a series of explosions in the past few months.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, staunch opponents of Syrian President Bashar al- Assad’s regime, also condemned the attack. UN leader Ban Ki-moon condemned it “in the strongest terms”, and said the international community was determined to support Lebanon’s “security and stability”. An hour before he was killed Chatah had criticised Hezbollah on Twitter. “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years,” he said, in reference to Syria’s nearly 30-year domination of Lebanon, which ended following mass protests against Hariri’s 2005 murder. Hezbollah has refused to hand over suspects wanted by a UN-backed tribunal investigating the murder of Hariri and 22 others in that bombing. Five Hezbollah members are to be tried in absentia by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Netherlands, with the first hearing set for Jan 16. A source close to Chatah called the bombing a “message ahead of the trial, saying ‘You want justice? Here it is’.” Chatah was the ninth high-profile anti- Syria figure killed in Lebanon since Hariri’s assassination. The attack was a grim throwback to the violence that tore Lebanon apart during the 1975-1990 civil war, and comes as the multi-sectarian country is bitterly divided over the war in neighbouring Syria and hosting more 800,000 Syrian refugees. Lebanon has seen several bombings and attacks linked to the Syria conflict, but Friday’s was the first in Beirut’s city centre. Rafiq Hariri oversaw the rebuilding of central Beirut after it was flattened in the civil war, and today it houses the parliament building, modern glass towers, shops, cafes and restaurants, and is known for its nightlife and tourist attractions.

“We were opening our store when we heard the blast. It was really loud. We are used to blasts in Lebanon but not in this area. Now we are not safe anywhere,” said shop clerk Mohammad, 23. Lebanon has been without a government for months over deep divisions between Hezbollah and the parties opposed to its involvement in Syria. Many in Lebanon resent that Hezbollah — which is blacklisted by the United States and the European Union — refused to disarm after the civil war on the grounds that it must fight Israel. Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Beirut also warned its citizens not to travel to Lebanon and urged those there to leave, the official SPA news agency reported. Riyadh “has followed with great concern and disturbance the outrageous terrorist bombing” that rocked the Lebanese capital, another SPA statement said. “The kingdom strongly condemns this cowardly criminal act and urges all parties in Lebanon to listen to the sound of rationalism and common sense... and insists on the need of the state to enhance its authority and that of the army across all Lebanese territories.” Qatar’s foreign ministry in a statement said it “strongly condemns such criminal acts that contradict all human values, and threaten to drag the region into chaos and instability”. Doha “affirms its stance in rejecting all forms of violence regardless of the source or motivation,” it added. Meanwhile, Damascus rejected accusations by Lebanon’s March 14 coalition that it was behind the Beirut car bomb blast that on Friday killed six people, including former minister Mohammad Chatah. “These wrong and arbitrary accusations are made in a context of political hatred,” said Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi, in remarks published by state news agency SANA. “Some figures in Lebanon have never stopped accusing (Damascus) every time a painful assassination takes place in the brother country Lebanon,” Zohbi added, in reference to the March 14 coalition that is opposed to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. March 14 had earlier implied Syria’s regime and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah were behind a deadly car bomb attack that killed six people, including an influential coalition member Mohammad Chatah. “The criminal is the same, he who is thirsty for the blood of Syrians is the same one spilling Lebanese blood ... from Beirut to Tripoli ... in all of Lebanon, the criminal is the same, he and his Lebanese allies, as in Daraa, Aleppo, Damascus and all of Syria,” said ex-prime minister Fouad Siniora, reading a March 14 coalition statement.

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