Crowds marched behind a somber funeral procession Thursday after a powerful car bombing killed a prominent anti-Syrian legislator and nine other people, dealing a new blow to the stability of this conflict-torn nation.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has called for an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers and the international community to assist in the investigation of Walid Eido’s assassination Wednesday near a popular waterfront promenade in the Lebanese capital.
The bomb ripped through Eido’s car as he drove from a seaside sports club, also killing his 35-year-old son, two bodyguards and six passers-by.
Businesses, schools and government offices were closed Thursday after the government declared a day of national mourning.
The bodies of Eido and his son were slowly being taken in ambulances from the American University Hospital in West Beirut to the Verdun neighborhood where the slain politician lived.
Several hundred supporters gathered on the street for the funeral procession, carrying flags of the Hariri Future movement and shouting the Islamic cry “There is no God but Allah.”
Eido was close to Hariri
Wednesday’s blast comes days after the government began putting together an international tribunal ordered by the United Nations to try suspects in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut two years ago — a move strongly opposed by Syria and its allies in Lebanon.
Eido was a prominent supporter of the tribunal and a close friend of Hariri. He is the seventh anti-Syrian figure killed in Lebanon in the past two years, starting with the February 2005 death of Hariri in a massive Beirut suicide car bombing. Many Lebanese have accused Syria of being behind the slayings, a claim Damascus denies.
Lebanon’s majority coalition blamed Syria for Wednesday’s assassination.
“This crime is a clear message from the Syrian regime to Lebanon in response to the creation of the international tribunal,” said a statement read by lawmaker Bassem Sabei.
Syria controlled Lebanon for 29 years until it was forced out after Hariri’s assassination, and its Lebanese opponents believe it is seeking to regain domination by plunging the country into chaos.
'Not leave them the arena'
“We shall not leave them the arena no matter how many fall; we will not abandon Beirut,” said a defiant Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister and leader of the anti-Syrian majority bloc in parliament to which Eido belonged.
President Bush — a major Saniora ally — also condemned the bombing and pledged “the United States will continue to stand up for Lebanon, its people, and its legitimate government as they face these attacks.”
Bush noted the victims of the spate of attacks “have always been those who sought an end to Syrian President (Bashar) Assad’s interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.”
He said efforts by both Syria and Iran “to foment instability in Lebanon must stop now.”
Asked if Washington saw Syria’s hand in the attack, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “I can’t tell you at this point, but very clearly this is the work of those who intend or want to undermine Lebanese democracy.”
At Tarik Jadideh, a Sunni neighborhood where support for Hariri and his Future bloc runs high, pictures of Eido and his son hung on shop windows and car screens as scores gathered on the street for the procession. “Walid, Khaled in our hearts” read the posters.
Saad Hariri urged his Sunni supporters to keep calm during the funeral, to avoid any eruption of violence.
Fear of new civil war
The slaying was likely to further enflame Lebanon’s bitter power struggle between Saniora’s Western-backed government and its Syrian-backed opponents, led by the Hezbollah militant group.
Many fear the violence could push the polarized nation, with a fragile balance of ethnic and religious groups, into a new civil war. Eleven people have been killed in government-opposition clashes that took a sectarian Sunni-Shiite tone.
Wednesday’s blast also came as Lebanon is dealing with a separate conflict that threatens to spiral out of control: a nearly four-week battle with al-Qaida-inspired militants barricaded inside a Palestinian refugee camp near the northern city of Tripoli. More than 140 people have been killed in the Lebanese army’s siege of the Nahr el-Bared camp.
The Lebanese military and police already had imposed heavy security measures around Beirut in reaction to a series of bomb blasts that have hit the capital since the Nahr el-Bared fighting began. Those explosions killed two people, yet another layer of instability rattling the country.