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Beirut Car Bomb Kills Lebanese Critic of Syria

Former Lebanese finance minister Mohamad Chatah, a harsh critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been killed in a massive car bombing in central Beirut.

Five other people were killed and about 70 wounded in Friday's blast, which comes after a series of sectarian bombings aimed at Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon over the past year.

Chatah, a Sunni, was a top advisor to former prime minister Saad Hariri. He previously served as Lebanon's ambassador to the U.S.

VOA correspondent Margaret Besheer, who is in Beirut, said many observers saw the 62-year-old Chatah as an unlikely assassination target.

"He is not a current member of the government. He's not a deputy in the parliament. He's not a current minister. When we've seen assassinations in Lebanon in the recent past, it's usually active members of government who are targeted or major political figures from important families."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the bombing, calling Chatah's killing a "heinous and cowardly attack to justice." Kerry said Chatah's death was a terrible loss for the the Lebanese people and said those responsible should be held accountable.

About an hour before his death, Chatah posted a message on Twitter, criticizing Syria and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to Syria in support of President Assad in the country's civil war.

No one has claimed responsibility but Prime Minister Saad Hariri blamed Hezbollah for the assassination. The militant group called the bombing a "heinous crime" within the "framework of a series of crimes and bombings aimed at sabotaging the country."

Friday's explosion occurred near government headquarters, not far from where former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri's father, was killed in a truck bombing in 2005. Investigations have suggested Syria and Hezbollah were involved in that assassination, though both deny the accusation.

Video and social media showed terrified people running from the scene of Friday's blast -- with cars on fire, windows blown out and buildings demolished.

Yara Zeitoun, who is in Beirut on vacation, told VOA she just missed walking in front of the bomb site as the explosion happened. She said the damage to the area is extensive.

"We're two buildings away from the scene, and we had debris fall all over our apartment from the ceiling and from outside. Dust blew in everywhere in the house. It was just a monumental sound."

The bombing occurred just days before several Hezbollah members go on trial at a U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the Rafik Hariri assassination.

The U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly condemned the bombing, saying he is "shocked and saddened." He called for those responsible to be brought to justice.

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