- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president said yesterday that he will not attend an Arab summit because of political turmoil in his country as investigators searched for clues to a car bomb that rocked a largely Christian neighborhood in Beirut, injuring nine persons.

President Emile Lahoud did not elaborate on his decision not to participate in tomorrow’s summit in Algeria, but it came as Syria withdraws troops from Lebanon after facing heavy pressure from the United States and fellow Arab countries to end a three-decade presence.

The attack devastated an eight-story apartment building in the largely Christian New Jdeideh neighborhood shortly after midnight yesterday and sent panicked residents in their pajamas into the street.

Mr. Lahoud, a close Syrian ally, made no mention of the attack, saying only in a statement that Lebanon was experiencing “exceptional circumstances” that required “immediate and direct dialogue” between opposition and pro-government groups.

He also offered to host immediate talks between Lebanon’s various political factions amid negotiations over the formation of a new government.

Opposition legislator Fares Soeid dismissed the invitation, saying: “It’s too late. This subject is closed.”

The violence raised concerns among some Lebanese that pro-Damascus elements might resort to violence to show, in their view, the need for a continued presence by Syrian forces. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have demonstrated for and against Syria since the Feb. 14 slaying of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The anti-Syrian protests have featured large numbers of Maronite Christians.

Police closed all entrances leading to the blast site and blocked onlookers from nearing the devastated building. After sunrise, residents began clearing debris and inspecting their damaged shops and homes.

The Lebanese military also announced stricter measures against any security violators. “The army will not allow that freedom of expression be abused in order to harm security and stability,” it said in a statement.

Security officials said on the condition of anonymity the blast was caused by a time bomb underneath a car belonging to a Lebanese-Armenian resident of the damaged building. The whereabouts of the car owner were not known.

Earlier, witnesses said the car attempted to stop in front of a bingo hall, but security guards asked its driver to move along. The driver then parked the car a short way down the road. Minutes later it exploded.

Opposition leader Walid Jumblatt warned there could be more car bombs and assassination attempts, but urged calm.

“Car-bomb messages do not threaten our national unity,” Mr. Jumblatt said in a speech to supporters at his mountain palace of Mukhtara, southeast of Beirut.

The leader of the militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, warned the opposition against closing the door to dialogue.

Political demands from factions for and against Syria have bogged down efforts to form a new government, raising concerns that the deadlock could threaten upcoming elections and even Syria’s final withdrawal.

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