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Beirut bomb raises violence fears

Saturday, March 19, 2005 Posted: 8:01 AM EST (1301 GMT)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN)-- Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud has urged Lebanon's divided politicians to begin immediate talks after a car bombing in Beirut increased fears of a return to Lebanon's violent past.

At least six people were wounded by the car bomb Saturday which wrecked the front of a multi-story government building in a predominantly Christian suburb.

The motive and target of the attack in New Jdeideh were not immediately clear, but CNN's Beirut Bureau Chief Brent Sadler said local people feared it may have been an attempt to sow divisions between Christians and Muslims.

The local legislator, Pierre Gemayel, called it an act of terrorism that could be an attempt to destabilize the country.

"This has been the message to the Lebanese people for a while -- to sow fear and terror among Lebanese citizens," Gemayel told Al-Jazeera television in remarks quoted by The Associated Press.

Lahoud urged the country's pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian opposition politicians to begin a dialogue right away.

"Lahoud calls on the sides ... to live up to their historic responsibilities to protect the higher interests of Lebanon at this sensitive stage by opening an immediate and direct dialogue to lay out all the outstanding problems and reach a consensus in the interest of Lebanon," a statement from the president's office said Saturday.

"The president affirms the need for such a dialogue meeting starting today in any place they agree on, including the presidential palace, which will keep its doors open."

Saturday's explosion occurred around 12:30 a.m. (5:30 p.m. ET Friday, 2230 GMT) and could be heard downtown, more than eight kilometers (five miles) away.

CNN's Sadler said that many people were asleep at the time of the blast, tossed from their beds by chunks of fallen masonry and showers of broken glass.

The area was quiet Friday night meaning casualties were relatively low, he added. But the force of the detonation was so strong that it blew the explosives-laden vehicle across the street in a pile of twisted metal.

Shortly after the bombing, dozens of people took to the streets. Security forces, including members of the Lebanese army and paramilitary forces, cordoned off the area.

Crime scene investigators were studying the wreckage to try to determine the type of explosive used, authorities said.

Lebanon has been gripped by political tension since the February 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in a car bomb many Lebanese blame on Syria.

Syria has bowed to international demands for a troop withdrawal from Lebanon after street protests sparked by the killing, but demonstrators have called for Lahoud to go too.

Deepening Lebanon's political crisis, key opposition leader Walid Jumblatt has said he and his allies would not join a new government as long as Lahoud remained in office.

That stance has threatened a bid to forge a unity government headed by pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami.

Karami resigned on February 28 under intense pressure following Hariri's killing. But he was reappointed by parliament last week to bring together both opposition and loyalist politicians in a cabinet to lead Lebanon to general elections scheduled for May.

Last week, Syria began pulling its 14,000 troops to the Bekaa Valley near the border, and vowed to bring all the troops and intelligence officials across the border into Syria later on.