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A powerful bomb exploded today in Beirut, Lebanon, killing a high-ranking intelligence chief and raising fears that the Syrian war could be spreading. The bomb exploded in a busy square in the middle of the afternoon. Seven other people died. Dozens more were wounded.
NPR's Kelly McEvers is with us from Beirut. And, Kelly, first, what else can you tell us about this explosion?
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Well, the explosion happened in a very central, fairly upscale, mostly Christian neighborhood here in Beirut. Like you said, it happened in the middle of the afternoon, just when school had let out. So there were a lot of people milling around. There's a Starbucks right there in the square. It was an enormous blast that people heard from miles away, big plume of smoke rising from it.
And afterwards, as people got to the scene, you know, they saw the sort of telltale massive crater in the pavement underneath where the car exploded. Apparently, a bomb had been placed inside a car. Balconies have been shaved off. Pieces of other cars ended up on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. So this was a very large and, some say, professional-looking explosion.
You know, these kinds of car bombs in the past have been the attack of choice here in Lebanon. In 2005, '06 and '07, more than a dozen prominent Lebanese figures were assassinated. These are figures who were stridently opposed to the Syrian government, and they were taken out for it.
SIEGEL: Well, who is this intelligence chief? And why, if he was the target of the attack, why, presumably, will he be targeted?
MCEVERS: His name was Wissam al-Hassan. He was a very high-ranking intelligence officer here in Lebanon, and he, too, opposed the Syrian government. In fact, he led the investigation that actually implicated Syria and its allies, the militant group Hezbollah, in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.
This man who was killed today also was leading an investigation of a former Lebanese minister who was very close to the Syrian regime. And he was recently arrested for plotting several attacks here in Lebanon in collusion with the Syrian regime.
So this was clearly a figure who stood against the Syrian regime, and he'd received threats in the past from Syria and its allies allegedly here in Lebanon. And many are saying now that he was taken out for that.
SIEGEL: Well, has anybody actually publicly accused Syria of this bombing, and have the Syrians commented on it at all?
MCEVERS: Many politicians here in Lebanon are saying that. In fact, they're not just saying, oh, we think it's the Syrians who did it. In fact, Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated prime minister, is saying - naming the name of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and saying it's his fault. He did this.
Now this is Lebanon, where everybody is divided. You're sort of with Syria or against Syria, so you have to know that this is what they're expected to say. But it was surprising to see people come out so stridently and so quickly in accusation of the Syrian regime.
Of course, the Syrian government in Damascus and its main ally here, the militant group Hezbollah, have publicly condemned the attack. They did say that this was a violent attack that has no justification.
SIEGEL: Kelly, have you been able to get any sense of how ordinary Lebanese people are reacting to this?
MCEVERS: I have to say it sparked quite a bit of fear on one hand. In certain parts of the city here in Beirut tonight, people's doors are closed. It is quiet. And then in some of the predominantly Sunni neighborhoods - this man who was killed was a Sunni. His alliance was a Sunni-Christian alliance that opposed the Syrian regime.
In the Sunni neighborhoods, we're now seeing protests. People are burning tires. They're blocking roads. And that's not just in Beirut, but that's in some of the Sunni cities north of Beirut and south of Beirut. We're hearing even some of the major highways are being blocked.
SIEGEL: OK, Kelly. Thanks and take care.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut. She was talking about a bomb that exploded there today, killing eight people, including a high-ranking intelligence official. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.