The force of the explosion in the primarily Christian neighborhoods of Hazmieh set a dozen vehicles ablaze and ripped a crater in the asphalt six feet wide and 3 feet deep.
The country's national police chief, Brig. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, confirmed that the car bomb killed Capt. Wissam Eid, who handled police intelligence investigations including "all those having to do with the terrorist bombings" in Lebanon, Rifi said.
Eid had survived two previous assassination attempts, including a bomb targeting his house and a raid in the northern port city of Tripoli, Interior Minister Hassan Sabei told LBC television.
Lebanon's sports minister, Ahmed Fatfat, said the officer was on his way home from a meeting at the headquarters of the U.N. commission investigating the 2005 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri. The commission's office is in a hilltop village about a 15-minute drive from the site of the explosion.
Eid's bodyguard also was killed, Rifi said.
Casualty figures fluctuated because some bodies were severely damaged and scattered across the area. A police statement later Friday put the total figure at four dead - one still unidentified - and 38 wounded.
Lebanon has been hit by a series of explosions, some of them political assassinations, amid a deepening 14-month political crisis. The explosion came a day after a labor strike that was largely peaceful, and 10 days after a car bomb aimed at a U.S. Embassy car killed three bystanders.
An explosion on Jan. 15 targeted a U.S. Embassy vehicle in northern Beirut, killing four Lebanese and injuring a local embassy employee just ahead of a farewell reception for the American ambassador.
The State Department said that one private American citizen was slightly wounded in that blast. The U.S. withdrew all diplomats from Beirut in September 1989 and did not reopen its embassy until 1991.
A previous car bombing on Dec. 12 in Beirut's suburb of Baabda killed Lebanese army Maj. Gen. Francois Hajj and two other people.
Syria, along with Islamic militants, has been fingered in many of Lebanon's recent bombings, though the targets have become more diverse in the past few months, with the killing of a top army general close to the opposition in December and the attack on the U.S. Embassy vehicle.
The biggest bombing was that which killed Hariri and 22 others, triggering political upheaval and international pressure that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon. Damascus denied any involvement.
Syria's state-run SANA news agency quoted an unnamed government official Friday as saying the latest attack "targets Lebanon's security and stability."
Lebanon's police intelligence department is close to the government's anti-Syrian majority, and has been frequently criticized by the pro-Syrian opposition.
Friday's bombing was the second attack against the department in less than two years. On Sept. 5, 2006, Lt. Col. Samir Shehade, deputy head of the intelligence department in Lebanon's national police force, was wounded when his convoy was targeted by an explosion in the town of Rmeileh, just north of the southern city of Sidon. The explosion killed four people in his convoy.
Eid was "one of the most important officers in the intelligence department," Sabei said. "They (attackers) are trying to hit the backbone of the Lebanese state, which is security."
As news of the killing spread to Eid's hometown of Deir Ammar north of Tripoli, dozens of villagers burnt car tires and blocked the coastal highway linking Lebanon's second-largest city with the Syrian border. The road reopened a few hours later.
Television footage from the attack scene in Beirut showed a huge plume of black smoke rising from street and orange flames shooting up into the sky.
Several cars burned in a blackened area some 20 yards wide, near a highway overpass. Firefighters struggled to put out the flames. Dozens of cars were also wrecked in a nearby parking lot.
Graphic TV footage showed at least three bodies, one slumped behind the wheel of a delivery truck that was ripped apart by the force of the explosion, and two others on the ground under a highway trestle.
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