Anti-Syria journalist killed in Beirut


CAIRO, Egypt - A prominent Lebanese journalist known for his unflinching anti-Syria columns was killed yesterday when a bomb planted inside his car exploded near the heart of downtown Beirut.

The assassination of Samir Kassir unnerved Lebanon just days after a month-long series of parliamentary elections got under way. The legislative polls have been billed as Lebanon's first exercise in unfettered voting after 30 years of Syrian domination and civil war.

The slaying was the first attack on a prominent anti-Syria Lebanese figure since the February killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The mass demonstrations that followed Hariri's death, bolstered by international pressure, forced Damascus to remove its soldiers from Lebanon this spring and relinquish all visible political control over Beirut.

No one immediately claimed responsibility. But hours after Kassir's death, anti-Syria politicians called for the resignation of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. A faithful ally to Syria, Lahoud has managed to cling to his job despite the political earthquake that rocked Lebanon in recent months.

"The response to this new crime should be ... the resignation of the president as the effective head of the security and intelligence regime," said a statement released to reporters after the opposition meeting.

Pressure against Lahoud, whose spokesman called the attack a "grave incident," had been building. Key leaders such as Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri, who has emerged as the political heir to his slain father, had called for the president's dismissal before the attack yesterday.

"As long as the serpent's head is in Baabda, the assassinations will continue," Jumblatt told Al-Arabiya television yesterday. He was referring to Lahoud, whose presidential palace is in the suburb of Baabda.

In the months since a bomb killed Hariri in downtown Beirut, a series of smaller explosions has struck the city and its suburbs. At least three people were killed and dozens wounded in those attacks, which were also generally targeted at Christian neighborhoods but occurred at odd hours of the night and early morning when fewer people were about.

The explosion yesterday brought the violence back into the daylight hours, and into the bustling city center.

Kassir, 45, had just walked out of his home and slipped into his Alfa Romeo when the bomb went off. The blast resounded at midmorning through the streets of the relatively wealthy, predominantly Christian neighborhood of Achrifiyeh, close to the center of Beirut.

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