Beirut bombing

Flames and smoke rise at the site of a large explosion in downtown Beirut, Lebanon. (Samir Talih / EPA / December 27, 2013)

AMMAN, Jordan -- A huge car bomb rocked central Beirut on Friday, killing at least five people including a Sunni politician who was a former ambassador to the United States and a prominent critic of Hezbollah.

More than 70 people were reported injured.

Plumes of black smoke billowed into the air, and television images showed scenes of blazing wreckage and scattered debris. Troops formed a security cordon around the area, close to downtown hotels as well as government buildings, including the parliament.

The death of Mohamad Chatah, an economist and diplomat, was confirmed by the Future Movement, a political faction with which Chatah had close ties. He was traveling by convoy at the time of the midmorning blast, and security officials said they believed that he had been specifically targeted.

The attack drew widespread condemnation. Prime Minister Najib Mikati called Chatah a moderate “who believed in dialogue and the language of reason.” There was an outpouring of dismay on social media, on which Chatah had been active.

The former Lebanese ambassador to the United States was a senior advisor to members of the Saudi-backed Future Movement. He was also a confidant of successive Lebanese leaders, including former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who himself was assassinated under eerily similar circumstances in February 2005, when his motorcade was hit by a massive bomb.

Chatah’s ties with the Future Movement, as well as his public statements, put him at odds with Hezbollah. The Future Movement has long called for the Lebanese Shiite group to stop its paramilitary operations in Syria and hand over its arms to the Lebanese state.

What was apparently Chatah’s final tweet, sent shortly before the blast, reflected that view:

Spillover violence from the Syrian civil war has led to a string of bombings and other attacks in the Lebanese capital. But previous deadly strikes have mainly taken place in the city’s Shiite-dominated southern neighborhoods, rather than in the commercial center.

Last month, a pair of bombings outside the Iranian Embassy compound in Beirut killed 23 people and injured more than 150. Iran, a prime player in Syria’s proxy war, is a backer of Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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Bulos is a special correspondent. Staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.

laura.king@latimes.com

Twitter: @laurakingLAT