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Ex-ambassador to US killed in Lebanon bomb blast; four others slain

NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Beirut where a car bomb killed a respected Lebanese politician and several others.

BEIRUT - The former Lebanese ambassador to the United States was killed early Friday by a bomb explosion close to the government headquarters in central Beirut that also killed at least four others.

Mohammad Chatah, who was a senior aide to former prime minister Saad Hariri, was attending a meeting of senior leaders of the March 14 political party.  The party is staunchly opposed to the regime of Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria and critical of Shiite militia and political party Hezbollah inside of Lebanon.

Nabil Mounzer / EPA

The blanket-covered body of former Finance minister Mohammad Chatah lies next to the wreckage of his car in downtown Beirut on Friday.

The blast, which targeted Chatah's convoy, set cars on fire and sent black smoke billowing into the sky above the recently-reconstructed upscale business and zone of Beirut, close to the Intercontinental Phoenica Hotel. 

AFP - Getty Images

Mohammed Chatah, former Lebanese ambassador to the U.S.

Four others were killed in the explosion, which was heard across the city at 9:40 a.m. local time (2.40 a.m. ET), Lebanese medical sources said.

Chatah's driver was among the victims, according to Reuters, citing security sources.

A Reuters witness at the scene said Chatah's car was "totally destroyed. It is a wreck."

The army cordoned off the area to prevent people from getting close to the scene, where the twisted wreckage of several cars was still smoldering. The explosion appeared to be the result of the car bomb, but security officials said they had no immediate confirmation. 

Hariri heads the main, Western-backed coalition in Lebanon and is engaged in bitter feuding with Hezbollah group, which is allied to Assad, who is embroiled in an increasingly brutal civil war. 

Chatah was also a prominent economist and former finance minister. He also served at the IMF and was former vice governor of Banque di Liban. 

He was one of the closest aides to Hariri's father, Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister who was himself killed in a truck bombing in Beirut in 2005 , not far from Friday's explosion. 

Chatah posted a tweet critical of Hezbollah less than two hours before his death.

Much of Beirut went into lock-down following the explosion, with police blocking off roads across the city. 

The United Nations issued a statement on Friday condemning the car bombing and other acts of terrorism.

“The Secretary-General is deeply troubled by the recurring acts of terrorism in Lebanon which pose a severe threat to the country's stability and national cohesion,” the spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in the statement.

“He urges all Lebanese parties to act with restraint at this time and to support the institutions of the state, and particularly the security forces, as they seek to prevent further acts of terrorism,” the spokesman said.

The U.N. also said Chatah’s death was a “tremendous loss” for Lebanon and expressed condolences to the families of all the victims.

Lebanon has seen a wave of bombings over the past months as tensions rise over Syria's civil war. 

An Iranian diplomat was among at least 23 people killed in a suspected twin suicide bomb attack at the Iranian Embassy in November. An al Qaeda-linked terror group claimed responsibility - the latest sign that Syria’s civil war is spilling over the border into Lebanon.

GlobalPost contributor Joseph Kechichian told news channel Al Jazeera that Friday's bomb was "absolutely" related to the civil war in Syria.

Wael Hamzeh / EPA

A Lebanese man carries an injured woman at the scene of the explosion in Beirut on Friday.

"Nothing goes on here in Lebanon nowadays that if not affected by what it happening in Syria," he said. "There are so many refugees from Syria living here. We are breathing, eating, living Syria, day in, day out."

NBC News' F. Brinley Bruton, Ayman Mohyeldin, Daniella Silva, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Alastair Jamieson reported from London.

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