Bomb targets official in Lebanon

Bodyguard is killed

pro-Syria minister and 12 others hurt in attack

July 13, 2005|By Rania Abouzeid and Megan K. Stack | Rania Abouzeid and Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon - A powerful bomb targeted the motorcade of Lebanon's outgoing defense minister in a wealthy Christian suburb yesterday, wounding the official and a dozen others and killing a member of his entourage.

It was the first assassination attempt against a top official here since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a car bomb in February.

The attack on Elias Murr signified a break in the pattern of bombings that have rattled Beirut in recent months. Until yesterday, those targeted for death have shared a common characteristic: They have been outspoken, even brazen, critics of Syria's longtime domination over Lebanese affairs.

But Murr, a former interior minister, was tightly associated with allies of Damascus. His father is a staunch Syria supporter who won a seat in parliament in spring elections. His father-in-law, President Emile Lahoud, is the highest-ranking member of the Lebanese government who has remained loyal to Syria.

Murr had been receiving death threats and told Lahoud that he feared for his life, said Fares Khachan, the political editor of Hariri's newspaper al-Mustaqbal and a close friend of the defense minister's. Murr carries a dangerous amount of intelligence about the workings of the former Syria-backed government, Khachan said.

"He told Lahoud, `I have information that they're going to try and kill me in a car bomb,' but Lahoud's reaction was, `Then leave the country, move away,'" Khachan said. "He's a reservoir of information about the security regime, and he needs very tight security now because he is still in danger."

The bombing was a harsh reminder of the uncertainty that still torments Lebanon amid its tentative attempts to create political stability. Voters recently elected the first independent parliament after the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents this spring. The new Legislature is dominated by anti-Syria figures, and a Cabinet was expected to be finalized today.

"This won't change anything regarding the formation of the new government," said Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who visited the wounded at a Beirut hospital. "We must be patient in the face of these terrorist, cowardly acts, and we must be united."

The bombing that killed Hariri sparked a political crisis in Lebanon and Syria. Damascus was widely blamed for the assassination of the popular leader. Outrage erupted on the streets of Beirut, as well as among Syria's key diplomatic allies. Under pressure, Syria was forced to relinquish its hold on neighboring Lebanon after nearly three decades of domination.

Syria has denied any role in Hariri's assassination. An international investigation is under way.

But bombs continue to rock the Lebanese capital. Attacks have included the assassination of a prominent anti-Syria columnist and of a Communist Party official who was critical of Damascus.

"There is a plan to eliminate every witness with information about the assassination of Rafik Hariri," Druze leader and Syria critic Walid Jumblatt told Future TV yesterday. "I expect these killings to continue until the security services are purged" of allies to Syria.

Yesterday's blast rang through the Antilias suburb of the seaside capital at 10:30 a.m. Murr's Porsche, flanked by his motorcade, was wending along a narrow street lined with embassies and manicured homes when the bomb went off.

Security officials at the scene said the bomb might have been planted in a car parked along the road and detonated by remote control.

The explosion was powerful enough to leave a gaping crater in the road. Hedges were charred, doors were blown off their hinges and cars were set ablaze in the street.

Murr's bodyguard was killed, but the defense minister escaped with superficial wounds to his abdomen, hands, chest and knee. He was taken to the hospital, where he was visited by Lahoud.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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