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Deadly Beirut bombing kills prominent politician who was critic of Hezbollah

December 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to Lebanon, where a prominent politician and others were killed in a bomb attack today.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The powerful blast shook buildings in central Beirut this morning and left what looked like the aftermath of a battle. A Lebanese TV channel captured the eerie silence in the streets moments after the explosion hit. Plumes of smoke rose from flaming cars, as shaken residents tried to make sense of what had happened.

MAN (through interpreter): As you can see, all the shops here are damaged. I consider all this terrorism. All this is terrorism, damaging the country and the people. What more can we say? God help us. God help this country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The attack wounded scores and killed six people, including the main target, Mohamad Chatah, a prominent Sunni politician and former ambassador to the U.S. He was an outspoken critic of the Assad regime in neighboring Syria and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah that is fighting for Assad.

Less than an hour before the attack, Chatah tweeted his latest criticism of the militants, saying, “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years.”

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Hezbollah denounced the assassination, but allies of Chatah took up his refrain in the hours after today’s attack.

MARWAN HAMADEH, Lebanese Minister of Communications: The target is Lebanon, its institution, its president, the whole image of this country, the convivial country, the country of democracy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: From Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry also condemned the killing. He called Chatah’s death a terrible loss and said — quote — “His presence will be missed, but his vision for a united Lebanon free from sectarian violence and destabilizing interference will continue to guide our efforts.”

But that goal seems far off, as the civil war in Syria has already split Lebanon into opposing political camps, with a weak caretaker government since April. And there’s been a tit-for-tat increase in bombings and other attacks in recent months. Last month, two suicide bombings rocked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing 25 people. Iran is a backer of Hezbollah.

Today’s attack was the first major strike at Beirut’s upscale renovated city center in years.