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Central Beirut rocked by massive car bomb

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

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

Chatah, an influential economist and former minister of finance and Lebanon's envoy to Washington, had served as adviser to ex-premier Fuad Siniora and remained a close aide to his successor, Saad Hariri.

Footage broadcast by Future TV showed people with their clothes on fire, others lying on the ground, some bloodied and in shock, as well as the mangled remains of a burning car.

Ambulances as well as security reinforcements rushed to the stricken area, where people caught in the blast were seen walking about in a daze as crowds gathered.

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

NNA news agency gave an initial toll of five people killed and more than 50 wounded in the blast, and said that more than 10 buildings in the area were badly damaged.

The prosecutor general Samir Hammud announced that the explosive had been between 50 and 60 kilograms.

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.

But Sunni leader Hariri was quick to implicate the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah in the attack, and linked the group to his father Rafiq Hariri's murder nearly nine years ago in another massive car bomb attack.

An hour before he was killed Chatah, tweeted a message slamming Hezbollah.

“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 military and political hegemony in Lebanon that ended after Rafiq Hariri's 2005 murder.

French President Francois Hollande denounced the “cowardly attack,” in the first reaction by a world leader.

The Serail sits atop a hill, towering over a vibrant city center which was destroyed in 1975-1990 civil war.

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Flames blaze from vehicles at the scene of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on Friday, Dec. 27. A strong explosion shook the Lebanese capital, sending black smoke billowing from the center of Beirut. The blast went off a few hundred meters from the government headquarters and parliament building.

(AP)

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