Beirut car bomb kills Lebanese critic of Syria

A huge car bomb rocked central Beirut Friday, killing six people including an influential member of a coalition opposed to the Syrian regime, leaving cars ablaze and buildings wrecked.

Tensions have soared in Lebanon since the outbreak of the war in neighbouring Syria, as the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement has sent troops to back the regime while their rivals in the Western-backed March 14 coalition have supported the Sunni-led rebels.

State news agency NNA said Mohammad Chatah, 62, was killed in the blast as he headed to a meeting in the city centre of the March 14 coalition at the mansion of ex-prime minister Saad Hariri. Dozens were injured in the explosion.

Chatah, an influential economist and former finance minister and envoy to Washington, had served as adviser to ex-premier Fuad Siniora and remained a close aide to his successor, Hariri, who has been living abroad since 2011 over security fears.

Hariri's father, billionaire prime minister Rafiq Hariri, was killed in a massive seafront blast in 2005 just blocks away from Friday's explosion, in an assassination his supporters blamed on Syria.

Friday's blast sent thick black smoke across the capital's skyline and over the Grand Serail, a massive Ottoman-era complex that houses the offices of the prime minister.

Footage broadcast by Future TV showed people with their clothes on fire and others lying on the ground, bloodied and in shock, as ambulances and security forces raced to the scene.

NNA said more than 50 people were wounded and more than 10 buildings were badly damaged by the blast, which prosecutor general Samir Hammud said was caused by 50-60 kilogrammes of explosives (110 and 132 pounds).

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the early morning bombing, the first in recent times to have struck the commercial and banking district of Beirut, which is also home to government offices and parliament.

'The criminal is the same' in Lebanon and Syria

The March 14 coalition implied Damascus and Hezbollah were behind the attack without mentioning them by name, saying in a statement that "the criminal is the same, he who is thirsty for the blood of Syrians... he and his Lebanese allies."

Hariri said those responsible for Chatah's murder, are "those who are hiding from international justice and who have spread the regional fire to the (Lebanese) nation... and who killed Rafiq Hariri."

Syria denied the "wrong and arbitrary accusations," saying "some figures in Lebanon have never stopped accusing (Damascus) every time a painful assassination takes place in the brother country Lebanon."

French President Francois Hollande meanwhile denounced the "cowardly attack", in the first reaction by a world leader. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, staunch opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, also condemned the attack.

An hour before he was killed Chatah had criticised Hezbollah on Twitter.

"Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years," he said, in reference to Syria's nearly 30-year domination of Lebanon, which ended following mass protests against Hariri's 2005 murder.

Hezbollah has refused to hand over suspects wanted by a UN-backed tribunal investigating the murder of Hariri and 22 others in the seafront bombing.

Five Hezbollah members are to be tried in absentia by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Netherlands, with the first hearing set for January 16.

A source close to the late Chatah said the bombing was a "message ahead of the trial, saying 'You want justice? Here it is'."

Chatah was the ninth high-profile anti-Syria figure killed in Lebanon since the Hariri assassination.

'We are not safe anywhere'

The attack was a grim reminder of the violence that tore Lebanon apart during the 1975-1990 civil war, and comes as the multi-sectarian country is bitterly divided over the war in neighbouring Syria and hosting more 800,000 Syrian refugees.

Lebanon has seen a series of bombings and other attacks linked to the war in Syria, but Friday's was the first in Beirut's city centre.

Rafiq Hariri had overseen the rebuilding of downtown Beirut after it was flattened in the civil war, and today it houses the parliament building, modern glass towers, shops, cafes and restaurants, and is known for its night life and tourist attractions.

"We were opening our store when we heard the blast. It was really loud. We are used to blasts in Lebanon but not in this area. Now we are not safe anywhere," said shop clerk Mohammad, 23.

Lebanon has been without a government for months over deep divisions between Hezbollah and the parties opposed to its involvement in Syria.

Many in Lebanon resent that Hezbollah -- which is blacklisted by the United States and the European Union -- refused to disarm at the end of the civil war on the grounds that it must fight Israel.