A coordinated car bomb attack took place today, in the Achrafieh district of East Beirut, Lebanon.
Going on early reports, it seems that eight people have been killed and a further 96 injured in the attack, which appears to have been a coordinated and successful attempt to assassinate top Lebanese intelligence official, Wissam al-Hassan. Al-Hassan was an important figure in Lebanese politics and was a very vocal critic of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime.
The explosion could be heard from miles away and was powerful enough to shatter the windows of buildings three blocks away. This is the first major car bomb in Lebanon in four years and follows recent sectarian violence that has spilled over from neighbouring Syria.
As I arrived at the scene, there were dozens of ambulances carrying away injured residents while military police cordoned off the area. Initial forensic investigations claim that the detonation came from a car bomb on a small side street. It contained over 50kg of TNT, with some estimates putting the blast at over 100kg.
The side street is one that faces Sassine Square, in what is a largely Maronite Christian suburb of Beirut. The area has a history of this kind of attack – Bachir Gemayel, then the leader of the right-wing Phalange party and President elect, was assassinated a few blocks away in 1982. Today's blast happened close to a Phalange party office. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack yet but tensions have been rising in the region since Syria started its depressing trudge to civil war last year.
In an interview with Reuters, Samy Gemayel, senior member of the Phalange party and nephew of Bachir Gemayel, said: "We will not accept any procrastination in this matter, we cannot continue like that. We have been warning for a year. Enough." Samy Gemayel’s brother was also assassinated in an attack in 2006.
Al-Hassan was instrumental in the investigation into the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in another car bomb attack. His findings implicated high-ranking members of Hezbollah.
Most importantly, two months ago al-Hassan headed the investigation into catching former Lebanese minister Michel Samaha, an ally of the Syrian regime. Samaha was arrested in connection with the discovery of at least 20 “highly effective” bombs with remote detonation capability in several areas of Lebanon, and had allegedly confessed to the charges.
The Syrians had previously suggested that they would not let the exposure of Michel Samaha go unpunished and it seems they have now sent a clear message to their opponents and to the Lebanese population.
All major political factions within Lebanon have condemned the attack, including Hezbollah, Syria’s faithful ally. However, former PM Saad Hariri was quick to hold the Syrian regime responsible for the attack, saying it aims to undermine the security of Lebanon.
While the SSNP (Syrian Social National Party) said the blast carried “Israel’s signature”, professor Hilal Khashan – an expert on Lebanese politics – was more forthright about where he feels the blame should be placed. Speaking live on CNN, he said: "There is no doubt in my mind that the people behind this attack are the Syrian regime and Hezbollah."
As details continue to emerge, it seems more and more likely that Lebanon is being dragged into the Syrian civil war, which is now threatening to engulf the entire region.
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