Syria denies involvement in recent hit

Prominent anti-Syrian journalist Gibran Tueni killed in latest Beirut bombing.

beirut car bomb 298 (photo credit: )
beirut car bomb 298
(photo credit: )
A car bomb on Monday killed journalist and lawmaker Gibran Tueni, the latest in a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon. A previously unknown group - "The Strugglers for the Unity and Freedom in al-Sham," Arabic for historic Greater Syria - claimed responsibility in a statement faxed to media outlets in Beirut, but many quickly accused Damascus in the slaying. Syria denied being behind the attack, which came on the day that the UN Security Council received a UN inquiry's report into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Jerusalem Post, said new evidence had reinforced investigators' belief that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence likely knew about the plot to assassinate Hariri. Professor Eyal Zisser, a Lebanon and Syria expert from the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, said while Syria will be blamed by all, it is impossible to know who was behind the bombings. "There are many in Lebanon who would be interested in Tueni's death," said Zisser, mentioning Lebanese President Emil Lahoud as one possibility. "The Syrians would be stupid to do this on the day of the latest Mehlis report is released. But they are also the big winners from this because Tueni was Syria's biggest enemy. " The latest assassination follows a string of earlier assassinations and attempts to kill journalists and parliamentarians who opposed the Syrian presence and control over Lebanon. However, according to Zisser, the latest attack is unlikely to have much of an effect on Syria, which is already in hot water from the release Monday of the latest Mehlis report to the UN Security Council. The report, said Zisser, raises the level of pressure on Syria for its alleged involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The Syrians, he said, are playing for time, hoping that they can withstand the increasing pressure as the US gets deeper embroiled in the conflict in Iraq. "It's a game with time to see who will last till the end," said Zisser, "For the Syrians it's a few more slaps but they feel as long as they can stick it out while the Americans get further involved in Iraq they will be ok." Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said he would ask the United Nations to set up a new inquiry into Tueni's slaying and previous bombings and to create an international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri assassination. "The matter transcends individual assassination and threatens the fate of a people and its future," he told reporters after an emergency session of his security officials. The cabinet, however, must approve any new UN probe and it is already sharply divided over requesting an international tribunal in the Hariri assassination, with Syria's Shiite allies Hizbullah and Amal opposing it. Churchbells tolled and men wept in the street over the loss of Tueni, the lead columnist and manager of Lebanon's most respected newspaper, An-Nahar. Tueni played a major role in the wave of protests that followed Hariri's death and helped force Syria to withdrawal its troops from Lebanon in April. "My God, Gibran, you were the only one who told the truth!" shouted one man, weeping at the scene of the bombing. The blast hit Tueni, 48, a day after he returned from France, where he had been staying periodically for fear of assassination. A parked car packed with an estimated 40 kilograms of TNT exploded as Tueni's motorcade passed in the hilly industrial suburb of Mkalles, flinging his armor-plated vehicle and several other cars into a ravine. Tueni, his driver and a passer-by were killed. Another 30 people were wounded in the bombing, which shattered nearby store windows and started a fire that destroyed at least 10 vehicles. "We have broken the pen of Gibran Tueni and gagged his mouth forever," stated The Strugglers for the Unity and Freedom in al-Sham's claim of responsibility. "He who contemplates attacking those who have sacrificed everything for the sake of Arabism and Lebanon will face the same fate as ... Tueni." The statement's authenticity could not be independently confirmed. Tueni is the fourth prominent anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon to have been killed in a string of 14 bombings in Lebanon that began with the February 14 blast that killed Hariri and 20 other people. Also killed in the series of bombings were Samir Kassir, a prominent An-Nahar journalist, and anti-Syrian politician George Hawi. In September, a bomb maimed an anchorwoman of the leading anti-Syrian TV station LBC. Tueni, a Christian, had championed the UN investigation into Hariri's slaying, which has focused on Syrian officials and their allies in Lebanon. From Israel's perspective, the assassination exposes Syria's activity in Lebanon and should increase pressure by the international community on Syria. "It brings us closer to the point of no return, where the international community and the United States will have to decide to impose sanctions on Syria," said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aide Ra'anan Gissin. He described Syrian "fingerprints" as pervasive in Lebanon, adding that, "This assassination is a clear signal from the Syrians to any would-be opposition that old practices have not changed." Leading Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt and Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, Tueni's uncle, blamed Syria for the bombing. Jumblatt said it was intended to silence those pushing to expose the assassins of Hariri. Hamadeh himself was injured in a car bombing in October 2004 that also killed his driver. He blamed Syria. Syrian Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah denied his government was involved, telling LBC television: "Those who are behind this are the enemies of Lebanon." Tueni's columns in An-Nahar often raised the ire of Syria. He was elected to parliament for the first time in the elections of May and June, when anti-Syrian politicians wrested the government away from Damascus' allies, who had dominated it during Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon. Tueni's grandfather, Gibran Tueni, founded An-Nahar. His father Ghassan Tueni is considered the dean of the Lebanese press, having turned the newspaper into an institution respected by friend and foe across the Arab world. >i>Hilary Leila Kreiger contributed to this report.