Beirut blast kills anti-Syrian lawmaker

Antoine Ghanem, the eighth anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated since February 2005, died Wednesday in a car bombing just days before the presidential vote.

An anti-Syrian Lebanese lawmaker was killed Wednesday in a large car-bomb explosion in east Beirut, just six days before parliament is scheduled to elect a new president.

The death of Antoine Ghanem, a Christian parliamentarian, may delay the election, which has already aggravated a bitter year-long political dispute between pro- and anti-Syrian factions here.

Mr. Ghanem died along with at least nine other people when, according to Lebanese officials, a car bomb packed with an estimated 80 pounds of explosives blew up at a junction of a busy street in the Sin al-Fil district of Beirut during the evening rush hour. A member of the mainly Christian Maronite Phalange Party, Ghanem is the eighth prominent anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated since February 2005, when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri died in a car bomb blast in downtown Beirut.

A United Nations investigation into the murders has implicated Syria in the killings. Damascus has denied any involvement.

The blast rocked the eastern half of the city, and a tall plume of black smoke rose into the sky. Firemen hosed down the burning wrecks of at least a dozen cars scattered along the street. Broken masonry blasted from surrounding buildings and shops carpeted the streets of this upmarket Christian neighbourhood.

"Where's my brother?" cried a distraught Ziad Ghosn, treading through a gutted second-floor apartment overlooking the bomb site. The rooms closest to the explosion were littered with smashed furniture and broken glass.

Makram Azzi, a retired pilot for Middle East Airlines, Lebanon's national flagship carrier, was sitting in his first-floor apartment when the bomb exploded in the street below.

"I heard a huge bang and my front door was blown off its hinges and hurled into the apartment," he says.

Ghanem had returned to Lebanon just two days ago, one of many anti-Syrian members of parliament who spent the summer overseas because of safety concerns. The blast occurred a few hundred yards from the office of Amine Gemayel, a former Lebanese president whose son, Pierre, then industry minister, was shot dead last November. In June, Walid Eido, a Sunni lawmaker, was killed by a car bombing.

Ghanem had returned to Beirut to participate in the presidential election, scheduled to begin next Tuesday, to replace the current incumbent Emile Lahoud, a close ally of Damascus whose term expires on Nov. 24.

The death of Ghanem, a member of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, narrows the bloc's lead to just three seats over the opposition, led by the militant Shiite Muslim Hizbullah. No clear presidential candidate has emerged, and with the anti- and pro-Syrian factions at loggerheads, analysts say that the crisis will persist until the end of Mr. Lahoud's mandate.

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