Lebanon's former Communist Party chief, an opponent of Syria's domination of his country, was assassinated in Beirut today when a bomb exploded under the seat of his car. It was the third killing of an anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon this year and came two days after parliamentary elections won by an alliance opposed to Syrian influence.
George Hawi, secretary general of the Lebanese Communist Party during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, was killed by a small charge hidden under the passenger seat of his Mercedes and detonated by remote control shortly after he got into the vehicle in the capital's Wata Musaitbi neighborhood, authorities said. They estimated that the bomb weighed about 400 grams (14 ounces). Hawi's driver escaped serious injury.
A similar bombing killed Samir Kassir, an anti-Syrian newspaper columnist and political activist, on June 2. In February, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 20 other people were killed when his motorcade was blown up by a massive bomb on a seafront road in Beirut.
Opposition politicians immediately blamed Hawi's assassination on the same shadowy Syrian and Lebanese intelligence operatives they held responsible for the killings of Hariri and Kassir. No one has claimed responsibility for any of the murders, and no evidence has yet emerged to definitively link them to any person or group.
The assassination of Hariri on Feb. 14 triggered huge demonstrations against Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon and the Syrian-backed Lebanese government, leading to a pullout of Syrian troops in April under international pressure. But opposition political figures say Syrian intelligence agencies continue to operate in Lebanon and still wield influence over Lebanese security services.
After a four-stage election that concluded Sunday, an alliance led by Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former prime minister, secured an eight-seat parliamentary majority, capturing 72 seats in the 128-member assembly. Hariri's candidate list won all 19 seats in Beirut in the first round on May 29 and all 28 seats in the last round Sunday in northern Lebanon.
The Lebanese and Syrian governments condemned the assassination of the 68-year-old Hawi, and Syria's official news agency suggested that Israel was to blame.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a protege of Syria, said in a statement that his country "is ready to continue cooperating internationally to uncover the real criminal hand that tampers with its security." He asked, "Is it a coincidence that this crime happens today, a few hours after the end of the parliamentary elections which the world saw take place democratically?"
"We are stunned," outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said during a visit to the site of today's bombing. "With every achievement by the Lebanese state, we see there are those who want to target security and send messages of this sort."
In Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah said in a statement that Syria "feels pain" over the assassinations of Lebanese figures, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported. The agency said Dakhlallah stressed "that the country's enemies stand behind these crimes." It said he described Hawi as a "man who resisted Israeli occupation" and "maintained fraternal relations with Syria."
The agency also quoted the current secretary general of the Lebanese Communist Party, Khaled Haddadeh, as blaming "Israel and its lackeys" for the killing of Hawi.
Hawi had led his group into an alliance with Palestinian guerrillas against Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He initially opposed the Syrian military intervention in Lebanon in 1976 but later sided with the Syrians in a fight against rightist Lebanese Christian militias backed by Israel. After the civil war ended, he became a prominent critic of the Syrian presence.
Like other politicians, Rafi Madoyan, a stepson of Hawi, was quick to blame pro-Syrian security services for the assassination.
"The security agencies continue to kill the democrats and are trying to assassinate democracy in Lebanon and the independence uprising," he told reporters, according to Reuters news agency. "It is not just George Hawi. There are many others on the hit list."
Farouk Dahrouj, a former Communist Party leader, attributed the killing to "the Lebanese security system, the remnants, the tutelage," the Associated Press quoted him as saying in a television interview. Lebanese often use the term "tutelage" to refer to Syrian influence.
Elias Atallah, a leftist opposition politician who was elected to parliament Sunday, told reporters at the scene of the blast that Hawi was killed "because he was struggling against the military clique that is against the return of the Syrian intelligence to this country."
According to AP, Hawi's wife, Sossie Madoyan, ran to the site about 100 yards from her ophthalmology clinic and fainted when she saw the carnage.
The killing coincided with a visit by a United Nations team that is conducting an international investigation of the assassination of Hariri. As part of the probe, a U.N. investigator, Detlev Mehlis, questioned the head of Lebanon's presidential guard, Col. Mustafa Hamdan, today after obtaining President Lahoud's permission. Members of the U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission under Mehlis, a German, also searched Hamdan's house and office.