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Lebanon struggles to get a grip on violence

Lebanon is struggling to cope with the fallout from Syria's civil war, which has divided the country along confessional lines and paralyzed the fragile state. With recent killings, violence is set to continue in 2014.

Hundreds of mourners came to bid farewell to Lebanon's former Finance Minister Mohammed Chatah on Sunday (29.12.2013) who was killed in a car bomb attack on Friday. It's the latest in a spate of sectarian killings in Lebanon. Sectarian tensions have soared in the country since Hezbollah openly intervened in neighboring Syria earlier this year.

"Hezbollah is the enemy of God," angry mourners chanted as 62-year-old Chatah was buried in the center of Lebanon's capital, Beirut. Chatah followers assume Hezbollah was behind Friday's attack that killed seven. No group has claimed responsibility for the car blast as of yet.

The explosion in Beirut's city center came as a shock. Chatah was on his way to a meeting of the March 14 alliance, a coalition of Sunnis and Christians who oppose Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

Omar (2nd R), son of former Lebanese minister Mohamad Chatah, who was killed in a bomb blast on Friday, carries his father's coffin along with relatives (photo: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)

Relatives at the funeral outside Beirut's al-Amin mosque

Chatah, a moderate influential Sunni, was on good terms with the March 8 alliance, a group made up of Shiites and Christians who back the Syrian regime.

Earlier this month, Lebanon's Interior Minister Marwan Charbel warned that clandestine groups would attempt to destabilize the country and said they could try to plant car bombs. President Michel Sleiman increased patrols by military and security forces to deter potential criminals. Lebanese had been concerned for their security after suicide bombers attacked Iran's embassy in Lebanon's capital Beirut at the end of November, killing 23.

Deeply divided

Since spring 2011 - when the uprising against Bashar al-Assad began - Lebanon's security situation has largely been influenced by events in neighboring Syria. The conflict has deeply divided Lebanon along confessional lines: Most of Lebanon's Sunnis support the Sunni-dominated Syrian uprising, while the majority of Shiites are in favor of Assad's regime. Apart from Iran, Shiite militant group Hezbollah is one of Assad's key political and military allies.

Smoke is seen above people gathering outside a mosque on the site of a powerful explosion in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli (photo: IBRAHIM CHALHOUB/AFP/Getty Images)

Two explosions in Tripoli killed dozens in August

Recent attacks in Lebanon have been carried out against groups that both oppose an support Assad. Explosions hit Sunni mosques in Tripoli at the end of August, a rebel stronghold in Lebanon's north, killing 45. Other attacks were launched on Shiite quarters, killing 24 in a blast in Beirut in mid-August. Hezbollah offices and the Iranian embassy have been attacked as well.

The targeted killing of Lebanese politician Chatah has prompted a public debate on who killed him and why. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said he holds the same people accountable who are accused of orchestrating the killing of his father. Rafik Hariri was killed in a car blast in 2005.

A UN-backed tribunal has spent years investigating the attack that killed Hariri and 22 others. However, five Hezbollah suspects refuse to appear before court and will be tried in absentia when the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) convenes in the Netherlands in January 2014. Hezbollah has dismissed the tribunal calling it an "Israeli instrument."

Syria's regime as mastermind?

Sati Nour Eddin, editor-in-chief of the Lebanese news site Al Modon, suspects the attacks were plotted in Syria. By eliminating senior Sunni politicians, Syria was attempting to gain control of Lebanon's political development, he said. The regime's recent military success in Syria's civil war would further boost Damascus' confidence, he added.

Mohammed Chatah (photo: JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images)

Mohammed Chatah (1951-2013)

Lebanese journalist Kassim Qassir believes the killing of Chatah was meant to weaken high-ranking politicians of the March 14 alliance who oppose the Syrian regime. Chatah's close ties with former prime ministers Saad Hariri and Fuad Siniora have led to his downfall, since both of them are among the alliance's elite.

Chatah had also failed to take measures to protect himself and therefore made for an easy target. Hariri, for instance, fled the country two years ago in fear of attacks.

On Sunday, Lebanese President Sleiman announced Saudi Arabia had pledged $3 billion (2.2 billion euros) to Lebanon to help strengthen the country's armed forces. Lebanon's army is widely seen as much weaker compared to Hezbollah, which is largely funded by Saudi-rival Iran.

"We will not surrender. We will not back down. We are not afraid of terrorists and murderers," Chatah's ally, former Prime Minister Siniora said. "We have decided to liberate Lebanon from the occupation of illegitimate weapons."

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