BEIRUT: A car bomb blast in Beirut on Friday killed eight people including a top security official linked to the anti-Damascus camp in Lebanon, prompting opposition calls for the government to resign.
The rush-hour bombing in the predominantly Christian district of Ashrafieh also left 86 people wounded, Information Minister Walid Daouk said.
Two Lebanese political leaders have already blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the attack, which has drawn international condemnation.
And the country's key opposition groups, after an emergency meeting Friday, called on the government to step down.
Among those killed was the intelligence chief of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, General Wissam al-Hassan, an official said, in one of the most high-profile assassinations since the 2005 murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.
“The government must leave and we call on Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign immediately,” said Ahmad Hariri, secretary-general of the Future movement, reading from a statement.
“Prime Minister Najib Mikati is personally responsible for the blood of General Wissam al-Hassan and the innocent” victims of the attack, he added.
Hassan was close to Hariri's son, Saad, who is leader of the opposition and hostile to Assad's regime. He had been tipped to take over as ISF head at the end of this year.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi condemned what he called a “terrorist, cowardly” attack. Such incidents were “unjustifiable wherever they occur,” he said.
But both Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon's Druze leader, accused the Syrian president of being behind the attack.
“We accuse Bashar al-Assad of the assassination of Wissam al-Hassam, the guarantor of the security of the Lebanese,” Hariri, who is also a former premier, told a Lebanese TV station.
Jumblatt, a longtime critic of Damascus, also accused Assad.
“The Syrian regime is expert in political assassinations,” he told AFP.
“Our response needs to be political. A president who burns Syria and is the executioner of Damascus does not care if Lebanon burns.” The explosion occurred only 200 metres (yards) from the headquarters of the Christian party, the Phalange, which is also anti-Damascus.
Phalange MP Nadim Gemayel also accused Syria, the former power brokers in Lebanon. “This regime, which is crumbling, is trying to export its conflict to Lebanon,” he said of the Damascus government.
Following the news that Hassan, a Sunni Muslim, had been killed, angry Sunnis set fire to tyres and blocked the road from the northern city of Tripoli to the Syrian border, an AFP journalist witnessed.
The United Nations, the European Union, the United States, Britain, France all condemned the attack.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged “all Lebanese parties not to be provoked by this heinous terrorist act,” in a statement released by his spokesman.
And a statement from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: “The perpetrators of this crime must be pursued and brought to justice.
“I call upon all Lebanese to remain calm and to ensure that this attack does not destabilise the country,” she added.
Sea of devastation
The blast ripped through a busy square as pupils were leaving schools and bank employees headed home.
The force of the explosion gutted two apartment blocs, tearing off balconies and shattering windows. Falling masonry crushed cars parked below.
Nancy, aged 45, was in tears as she explained how she had narrowly escaped death. “Had we not been out of the house buying medicines, we would have died,” she said. “Our house was burned. Thank God we're alive.”
The last car bombing in Beirut was on January 25, 2008, when Lebanon's top anti-terrorism investigator and three other people were slain.
The attack has touched off painful memories of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and the political unrest that has troubled the post-war years, much of it linked to Syrian influence in the country.
Rafiq Hariri's murder on February 14, 2005 was the most high-profile killing since the civil war. The former premier and 22 other people were killed as his motorcade drove along the waterfront.
At the time, Lebanon was occupied by Syrian troops, who had entered the country during the civil war under an Arab League mandate. The country's politics were dominated by Damascus.
The international outcry that followed the Hariri assassination prompted Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, but Syria still exerts a strong influence.
No one has ever been tried for Hariri's murder, but a UN-backed tribunal has indicted four members of the Shia group Hezbollah, which now dominates the Lebanese government and is allied to Damascus.
Hezbollah said Friday the attack was “an attempt to destabilise Lebanon and national unity.”