BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) – A Druse politician in Lebanon who recently helped reconcile rival factions within his minority community was killed when a bomb tore through his car, police said.
One of Sheik Saleh Aridi’s colleagues said that Wednesday’s attack in the hills east of Lebanon’s capital was an attempt to rekindle violence between rivals in the Druse-inhabited mountains.
The bomb that killed Aridi, a senior member of the Lebanese Democratic Party, was planted under his car in the village of Baissour, police said. It was the first political assassination in about a year in Lebanon and came less than a week before planned reconciliation talks among rival Lebanese factions.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora contacted Druse leaders and joined them in calling for calm.
Six other people were injured in the blast, which went off as Aridi got into his Mercedes sedan in front of his house in the Druse-populated hills near the resort town of Aley, police said.
Police said the charge was stuck under the body of car, below the driver’s seat, and blew up as the car rolled. Officials believe it was triggered either by remote control or by a motion sensor.
The police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of government regulations.
The bomb tore off the roof off the vehicle. Television footage showed investigators sifting through the blackened hulk of the vehicle with flashlights.
The United States was “deeply concerned” about the bombing and its support of the Lebanese government was “unwavering,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
The bomb’s target was unusual — a politician in support of Syria, a nation that had long dominated its politically fractured neighbor. A string of bombs have largely targeted politicians opposed to Syria’s influence in Lebanese affairs, starting with the Beirut truck bombing that killed former Premier Rafik Hariri in 2005.
Those attacks were blamed by many on Syria, though it has denied involvement.
Lebanon’s political standoff between pro- and anti-Syrian factions boiled over into fighting in Beirut and the Druse hills east of the capital in May.
During those clashes, Shiite fighters of the Syrian-backed Hezbollah overran Sunni pro-government strongholds and fought an anti-Syrian Druse faction in the region where the bomb went off Wednesday.
An Arab-brokered agreement defused the tension, leading to the election of a new president and the formation of a national unity Cabinet that included the two major blocs.
Nazih Abu Ibrahim, a colleague of Aridi in the party’s political bureau, said the aim of the assassination was to rekindle violence between rivals in the Druse-inhabited mountains.
The area is controlled by two main Druse factions, the Lebanese Democratic Party led by Talal Arsalan and the Progressive Socialist Party of Walid Jumblatt.
“It was a bloody message,” Abu Ibrahim said on Hezbollah’s al-Manar television, noting the conciliatory atmosphere in recent weeks prompted party officials to relax their security measures.
In addition to the rivalry over control of the Druse community, the two parties are also on opposite sides of the divide over Syria. Arsalan is allied with the Syrian-backed Hezbollah and Jumblatt is a prominent leader of the anti-Syrian camp.
Since the May fighting, the two leaders reconciled. Aridi was a key liaison between the two sides and helped mediate an end to the fighting between Hezbollah and Jumblatt’s men in the region around his hometown.
The Druse are a secretive offshoot Islamic sect with communities in Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
Jumblatt went to the village after the explosion to express solidarity and attempt to defuse tensions. He said whoever was behind the bombing did not like the conciliatory air among political factions nationwide in recent weeks.
Arsalan was out of the country. His deputy, Ziad Choueiri, said the attack aimed at undermining security. “Stability and civil peace are red lines. We will not allow them to be crossed,” he said on al-Jadeed TV from the scene.
The bombing came amid efforts to cement reconciliation among the factions and defuse sectarian tensions. In addition to next week’s conference called for by the president, Sunni and Alawite factions in Tripoli reached a truce and entrusted security in the city to the Lebanese army.
The last high-profile political assassination was of an anti-Syrian legislator a year ago in another Beirut suburb.
One of the deadliest bombings in Lebanon in the last three years occurred on Aug. 13, when a roadside bomb exploded near a bus in the northern port city of Tripoli, a Sunni stronghold, killing 18 soldiers and civilians.