A powerful, remote controlled car bomb today killed at least eight people in East Beirut, including the 18-month-old daughter of Lebanon's top right-wing Christian militia commander, Bashir Gemayel.
The radio station of Gemayel's Phalangist Party said another 20 people were injured in the blast, which occurred at 11 a.m. The state-run Beirt Radio said a booby-trapped parked car exploded in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh as the militia leader's Mercedes was driven past.
Unconfirmed reports said the casualty toll could be as high as 19 dead and 55 wounded.
Gemayel was at his East Beirut home when the remote-controlled bomb killed his baby daughter, Maya, as well as his driver, a bodyguard and the occupants of a car driving behind the Mercedes.
The Phalangist Party issued no statement of blame after the explosion. The blast, however, aggravated escalating tensions in Lebanon that stem from not only stepped-up fighting among rival Christian militias but also a threat by Syria to pull its troops out of Beirut -- a move that would risk another outbreak of the 1975-76 civil strife that plagued the country.
Phalangist sources privately pointed an accusing finger at the followers of pro-Syrian former president Suleiman Franjieh, whose son Tony was killed in an attack by Phalangist gunmen in 1978.
After burying his daughter in a hurried ceremony at the Gemayel ancestral home in Bikfaya 12 miles north of Beirut, the 33-year-old militia commander said she had "died a martyr like many others before her."
Despite an urgent plea for "maximum restraint" from Gemayel, apparently directed at his followers, there were fears of a violent new turn in the bitter two-year-old struggle between the Phalangists and the Syrian-backed Franjieh clan of north Lebanon.
The latest chapter in the rivalry was a six-day battle last week between Phalangist militiamen and Syrian troops backing Franjieh around the village of Qnat, about 30 miles north of Beirut. The estimated 80 dead reportedly included 18 Syrian soldiers.
The Phalangist-Franjieh contest for political, economic and militia control of north Lebanon emerged soon after the end of the civil war.
The alleged imprisonment of Phalangist Party members in Syria, coupled with the continuing Christian rivalries, led to a wave of massive kidnapings of Franjieh's men about four months ago.
The Phalangists still hold five members of the former president's family and have not budged from their demands for the release of Syrian-held party members.
The abduction of Phalangist parliament deputy Edmond Rizk by the Franjiehs earlier this month has not eased the stalemate over the hostages. Hopes for an exchange this weekend appeared to have been shattered by the bomb blast today.
Lebanese President Elias Sarkis, meanwhile, met with Prime Minister Selim Hoss and Foreign Minister Fuad Butros to discuss the crisis. The efforts of the central government to reassert its authority and rebuild the nation's army have been hampered by the continued inter-Christian and Syrian-Christian fighting.