Beirut car bomb kills anti-Syrian MP, 6 others

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BEIRUT, Sep 19 (Reuters) A car bomb killed an anti-Syrian Lebanese lawmaker and at least six other people in Beirut today, less than a week before parliament was due to elect a new president, security sources said.

Antoine Ghanem of the Christian Phalange party died in a Christian district of the Lebanese capital in an attack his allies blamed on Damascus.

At least 19 other people were wounded by the bomb in the busy commercial and residential area of Sin el-Fil. Several cars were set ablaze and rescue workers carried bodies from the scene in eastern Beirut.

Ghanem, 64, was a member of the anti-Syrian governing coalition which has been locked in a power struggle since November with factions backed by Damascus.

He was the 7th anti-Syrian figure to be killed in Lebanon since the February 14, 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

The United States strongly condemned the killing and said it seemed to fit a pattern of other such killings.

''There's been a pattern. This would seem to fit into the pattern,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in Washington.

Ghanem's death reduced the coalition to just 68 seats in the 128-seat parliament, which is due to convene on September 25 to elect a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.

Members of the anti-Syrian coalition said Damascus aimed to further erode its majority.

''The Syrian regime is exerting its terrorist skills at the expense of the Lebanese majority,'' said Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, a leading member of the governing coalition who survived an assassination attempt in 2004.

''Every two or three months we are being targeted,'' he told Reuters.

Rival leaders have recently resumed contacts but political sources have said they are unlikely to bear fruit in time for the presidential vote to go ahead next week.

Some anti-Syrian leaders have said the governing coalition could call its legislators to elect a president using their simple majority, bypassing the requirement for a two-thirds quorum for the vote in parliament.

BLOW TO RECONCILIATION The opposition has called for both sides to agree on a presidential candidate in an initiative led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is also part of an opposition coalition including Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah.

''We cannot separate this attack from the presidential elections. This attack was a hit on the presidential elections and an obstruction to Nabih Berri's recent initiative,'' presidential candidate Boutros Harb told Reuters Lebanese political analyst Oussama Safa said Wednesday's car bomb was ''a strong message to the majority against any plans to elect a president with a simple majority or to go ahead against the wishes of the opposition''.

''I think this is the beginning of destabilisation campaign the closer we get to an election date,'' he said.

Pierre Gemayel, the industry member and lawmaker who was assassinated in November last year, was a member of the same party as Ghanem, who had returned from a two-month stay abroad this week.

Ghanem had moved abroad out of security fears.

In June this year, anti-Syrian lawmaker Walid Eido and nine other people died in a car bomb in Beirut.

Damascus has consistently denied any role in assassinations in Lebanon.

REUTERS GL BST2332

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