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Bomb hits Christian area of Beirut

Some fear return to sectarian strife

BEIRUT -- With Lebanese politicians deadlocked over the formation of a new government as Syria withdraws its forces, a car bomb rocked a largely Christian neighborhood in north Beirut early today, injuring nine people and causing extensive damage.

The target of the attack wasn't immediately clear, but it added to the political turmoil after the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops to east Lebanon and Syria.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have been participating in demonstrations for and against Syria since Hariri was killed. Anti-Syrian demonstrations have included large numbers of Maronite Christians.

The explosion played to concerns among some Lebanese that pro-Syrian elements might resort to violence to show, in their view, the need for a continued presence by Damascus forces.

''This has been the message to the Lebanese people for a while -- to sow fear and terror among Lebanese citizens," Christian opposition member Pierre Gemayel told Al-Jazeera television. The message is ''if there is a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, look what Lebanon will face."

Political demands from factions for and against Syria have bogged down efforts to form a new government, raising concerns that the deadlock that could threaten upcoming elections and even Syria's final withdrawal after 29 years.

Premier-designate Omar Karami has insisted on a ''national unity" government, but the anti-Syrian opposition is refusing to join before its demands are met. The opposition has demanded a neutral Cabinet to arrange for elections, the resignation of security chiefs, and an international investigation into Hariri's death.

Some opposition members accuse Karami of stalling to kill the chances of holding an election they believe the pro-Syrian camp will lose.

The explosion blew off the fronts of some structures, left a 7-foot-deep crater, damaged parked cars and shops, and shattered windows for several blocks in the New Jdeideh neighborhood.

Witnesses said the car attempted to stop in front of a bingo hall, but guards asked its driver to move along. The driver then parked the car down the road. Minutes later it exploded.

Shaken residents in pajamas came out into the street and stood outside the damaged building behind a police cordon. ''We were sleeping when it happened," said a white-haired man, who declined to be identified. ''We don't know what and why. No one important lives here."

The intensity of the political battle over Syria's troops has raised fears of a return to the sectarian violence of the 1975-90 civil war. So far, however, the political camps do not conform to religious boundaries, with Christians and Muslims on both sides of the debate.

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