BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon was plunged into further turmoil on Thursday after the murder of another anti-Syrian lawmaker in a car bombing widely blamed on Damascus that threatens to derail a key presidential vote.
Christian MP Antoine Ghanem was killed along with four other people in the massive blast on Wednesday in a busy neighbourhood of Beirut, the latest in a spate of attacks against prominent anti-Syrian figures.
The assassination — condemned around the world — was seen as a clear message ahead of a parliament session on Tuesday to elect a president amid almost total political deadlock between the Western-backed majority and the pro-Damascus opposition.
“We do not fear terrorism and this will not break our will,” Information Minister Ghazi Aridi told a press conference. “It will only reinforce our determination to prevent the terrorists from succeeding.
Security was boosted in Beirut as police sifted through wreckage of the powerful blast, which left a number of blackened and mangled cars, and interviewed people in the Christian neighbourhood where the blast took place.
A police spokesman said five people were killed, including the MP, and 71 others injured. Two of the deputy’s bodyguards were among the dead, Ghanem’s daughter Mounia told AFP.
“The bomb consisted of more than 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of TNT packed in a Mercedes car parked nearby with fake licence plates,” he said. “It was detonated via remote control.”
Ghanem, 64, a lawyer, had been an MP since 2000. He belonged to the Christian Phalange party of former president Amin Gemayal, whose own son, industry minister Pierre, was killed last November.
The party said Ghanem’s funeral would be held on Friday and called for a general strike on Thursday. The education ministry said all schools and unversities would stay shut both on Thursday and Friday.
World powers condemned the attack as a blatant bid to destabilise Lebanon.
US President George W. Bush cited “a tragic pattern” of attacks against champions of “an independent and democratic Lebanon” while UN chief Ban Ki-moon condemned it as a “brutal assassination.”
But Syria denied any involvement, saying the bombing was a “criminal act” aimed at undermining efforts at a rapprochement with Lebanon.
Hezbollah, the leading party in Lebanon’s pro-Syrian opposition, said the assassination was “a blow to the country’s security and stability as well as any attempt at reconciliation and hope toward reaching a political consensus.”
It called on the country’s feuding political parties to respond to the killing by showing “unity.”
Prime Minister Fuad Siniora urged the United Nations to investigate Ghanem’s killing as part of its probe into similar murders of anti-Syrian figures including former premier Rafiq Hariri who was assassinated in 2005.
Fearing for his life, Ghanem had fled into exile following the assassination in June of another anti-Syrian MP, and only returned to Lebanon on Sunday.
Ghanem was the eighth member of the anti-Syrian majority to be assassinated since the February 2005 murder of five-time prime minister and billionaire tycoon Hariri.
Ghanem’s death reduced the majority in parliament to 68 members out of the now 127-member house, with numbers set to play a key role in the presidential vote to replace the current pro-Syrian head of state Emile Lahoud.
“We will vote for a president at any cost, we won’t buckle,” said Joseph Abu Khalil, a senior member of the Phalange party.
He said the attack was clearly aimed at diminishing the number of deputies in the ruling majority so as to derail the presidential vote, adding: “This is aimed at sowing chaos and creating a vacuum.”
The country has been on edge since the February 2005 Beirut seafront bomb blast that killed Hariri, in an attack that was widely blamed on Syria and forced it to end three decades of military domination.
Damascus has denied any connection with the Hariri killing or any of the others since then.
Lebanon’s political crisis was exacerbated when pro-Syrian opposition forces withdrew six ministers from Siniora’s Western-backed cabinet in November.
Analysts say failure by the political foes to choose a consensus presidential candidate could spark a dangerous power vacuum or even lead to the naming of two rival governments — a grim reminder of the final years of the 1975-1990 civil war when two competing administrations battled it out.
Parliament speaker Nabih Berri has called for parliament to convene on Tuesday for the election, but confusion still reigns over whether the vote will actually take place on that date.
A candidate, who by convention comes from the Maronite Christian community, needs a two-thirds majority to be elected president from a first round of voting, while a simple majority is enough in any later round.
An election can be held right up until the final deadline of November 24, but if the president’s seat is left vacant, his powers are automatically transferred to the government.