Deadly Blast Rocks Christian Neighborhood in Beirut

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A car bomb Friday killed one of Lebanon's top terrorism investigators who was probing assassinations of prominent anti-Syrian figures and a series of other attacks in recent years.

Capt. Wissam Eid, 31, worked for the police intelligence agency which is closely tied to the Western-backed government and had survived two previous assassination attempts. The attack also killed his bodyguard and three passers-by and wounded 37 people, police said.

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A huge plume of black smoke rose from the site of the attack in the Lebanese capital. Television footage showed orange flames shooting up into the sky, as several cars burned and firefighters struggled to put out the flames.

Graphic televised images showed a body slumped behind the wheel of a delivery truck ripped apart by the blast and two other bodies on the ground. The bombing set a dozen vehicles ablaze and ripped a crater in the asphalt 12 feet wide and 6 feet deep. It shattered windows hundreds of feet away and knocked motorcyclists off roads.

Lebanon is deeply and bitterly divided along pro- and anti-Syrian lines. A prolonged crisis has left the country without a president since Nov. 23 because the two camps cannot agree on a candidate or the makeup of a future government.

Since 2005, the country has seen a series of bombings including the assassinations of eight prominent anti-Syrian figures.

As a senior officer in the intelligence department, Eid had handled "very important" files including "all those having to do with the terrorist bombings," national Police Chief Brig. Gen. Ashraf Rifi said.

His work in the technology field was believed to include sifting through millions of telecommunication tips and cellular phone contacts as part of those investigations.

Eid was "one of the most important officers in the intelligence department," Interior Minister Hassan Sabei said. "They are trying to hit the backbone of the Lebanese state, which is security."

Sabei pledged the attack would not deter Lebanon from working "toward the goal which is independence and freedom."

As news of the killing spread to Eid's hometown of Deir Ammar, north of Beirut, dozens of angry villagers burned car tires and blocked a highway leading from the Mediterranean coast to the Syrian border for a few hours.

Eid had survived two other assassination attempts, including a bomb targeting his house, Sabei told LBC television.

In Washington, White House press secretary Dana Perino was asked if Syria was behind Eid's killing.

"I don't know that for sure. I wouldn't put it past them," she said. She condemned it as "an attack by those who seek to undermine Lebanese institutions and democratic processes and to delay further the selection of a new Lebanese president."

The police intelligence department Eid worked for is close to the anti-Syrian majority that controls Lebanon's government and parliament and it and has been often criticized by the pro-Syrian opposition.

Syria has been fingered in many of Lebanon's recent bombings, including that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. His assassination triggered political upheaval and international pressure that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon that same year, ending almost three decades of domination of its smaller neighbor.

Islamic militants also were suspected in some of the explosions.

Legislator Saad Hariri, the former prime minister's son and leader of the anti-Syrian parliament majority, implicitly blamed Syria for the "despicable crime." Seeking Arab nations' help, he said the killing should prompt a "new appeal ... (to make) the Syrian regime take its hand off Lebanon."

"They shall pay the price," he said of the culprits. "We fear no one but God and we will defend Lebanon's independence."

Damascus has denied any role in the bombings. It also condemned Eid's killing, as did its ally Hezbollah, the Islamic militant group which leads the Lebanese opposition.

Arab League Chief Amr Moussa, who earlier this month failed in Beirut talks to reconcile the feuding factions, warned against letting Lebanon "slip into an abyss."

Lebanese Sports Minister Ahmed Fatfat said Eid was on his way from a meeting at the headquarters of the U.N. commission investigating the Hariri's assassination.

But Sabei said Eid was on his way to work and the discrepancy could not be immediately reconciled.

The blast ripped through the Christian eastern neighborhood of Hazmieh. It was the deadliest bombing since last September, when a pro-government lawmaker Antoine Ghanem was killed along with six other people in another Christian suburb.

The amount of explosives used in Friday's blast — 154 pounds — was the most since Hariri and 22 others were killed in a February 2005 by more than a ton of explosives.

The explosion came just two days before Arab foreign ministers were to meet in Cairo to discuss the Lebanon crisis.