Gibran Tueni, Lebanon's leading journalist and a prominent politician, was killed in a car bomb explosion Monday, the latest victim of a sporadic assassination campaign against anti-Syrian figures.
His death, in a hilly suburb of east Beirut, came less than 24 hours after he returned to Lebanon from France where he had been staying on and off for several months because of death threats.
The bomb attack, the first targeting an anti-Syrian figure here in three months, came on the eve of a United Nations Security Council debate to discuss the latest report of a UN commission investigating the murder of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister whose death in a massive bomb blast in February is widely blamed on Syria. The report criticizes Syria for failing to cooperate fully with the inquiry, which could spur the Security Council to impose sanctions on Damascus.
Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian president, warned in an interview with Russian TV this weekend that UN sanctions would lead to "chaos" in the region, and that the "entire world would pay the price."
Simon Karam, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington and political ally of Mr. Tueni, described the assassination as a "catastrophe" and blamed Syria.
"They are making good on their word," he says, referring to Mr. Assad's interview. "They are following up their words with bloody deeds."
Tueni was the general manager of Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper and a leading figure in the independence uprising triggered by Mr. Hariri's death, which culminated in a Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon in April.
The bomb exploded at 9 a.m. as Tueni's car headed along a narrow road cut into the side of a steep valley in the eastern Beirut suburb of Mkalles. His armor-plated sports utility vehicle was blasted through a concrete balustrade and tumbled some 200 feet down the ravine, instantly killing Tueni, his driver, and an unidentified passerby. The explosion set fire to the tinder-dry grass on the side of the valley and smashed windows for hundreds of yards in a nearby industrial estate, lightly wounding at least 30 people.
Richard Jarjoura, who works in a factory overlooking the bomb site, says that most of his 50 staff left the building a few minutes before the bomb exploded.
"Four or five of us were cut by glass. Thank God there were not more people in the building," he says.
Troops in dark-blue uniforms sealed off the scene of the bombing while police investigators combed the hillside looking for clues. Several cars parked along the side of the road were crumpled and blackened from the blast.
On being told the name of the victim by a police investigator, an elderly man cried out, "My God Gibran, you were the only one who told the truth!" He staggered over to a parked car, buried his head in his arms, and sobbed.
A grim-faced Ghassan Mokheiber, a Christian member of parliament allied to Saad Hariri, the slain former premier's son and political heir, told reporters at the scene, "There are no words to express the extent of my pain."
He added, "No matter what they do to us, we will continue."
Marwan Hamade, a minister and uncle of Tueni who survived a similar bomb attack more than a year ago, said he would resign from the government if it does not call for an international investigation into this and other assassinations.
In an unusually tough statement, the US Embassy condemned Tueni's death as a "heinous act" committed by "the forces of oppression and tyranny," and hailed the journalist as one of Lebanon's "greatest champions of liberty and freedom."
Syrian Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah told Lebanon's LBC television station that, "Whatever the differences between this or that person, Syria does not subscribe to these methods, which are used by the enemies of Lebanon."
A previously unknown group called the "Strugglers for Unity and Freedom in al-Sham" claimed responsibility, saying it killed Tueni "for spreading poison and lies." This claim could not be independently verified, and few in Lebanon seemed to take it seriously.
"It's clear that the Syrians are expecting a harsh report from the UN and they are saying through Gibran's death that they don't care," says Chibli Mallat, a professor of international law and a democracy activist who is running for the Lebanese presidency.
Under pressure from the UN probe into Hariri's murder, the Syrian regime appears to have adopted a policy of playing for time, alternating defiance, designed to rally domestic support, with compliance with the commission's demands to interrogate Syrian officials. Analysts believe that Damascus is hoping international interest in the Hariri case will wane the longer the probe drags on, thus reducing the likelihood of the UN imposing sanctions. Last month, on Syrian television, a Syrian witness in the Hariri assassination recanted his testimony to the UN commission, which Damascus claimed casts doubt on the integrity of the investigation.
Tueni was long one of the foremost figures in the opposition to Syria's three-decade hegemony over Lebanon. His regular opinion pieces were relentless hammer blows against Syrian interference in Lebanon. In one of his last columns, he accused the Syrian regime of "crimes against humanity" after several mass graves were discovered recently near the former Syrian intelligence headquarters in Lebanon.