A prominent Lebanese political activist and essayist critical of the Hezbollah militia was found dead with his body riddled with bullets Thursday morning in his car, security and forensic officials said.
Lokman Slim, 58, a Shi'ite, went missing on Wednesday night while visiting friends in a village in the south of the country. His family, who were expecting him to return to Beirut the same day, were quick to post messages on social media alerting them to his disappearance, including one written by his wife on Twitter that Slim was not answering his phone.
Security forces finally found Slim's car at midnight on a rural road near the village of Addoussieh, also in the south of the country, a region where Hezbollah maintains a strong presence.
The coroner on the scene reported that Slim had four gunshot wounds to the chest, head and neck and that death was instantaneous. The interior of the car was covered in blood.
A member of the police, who spoke to news agencies on condition of anonymity, said Slim's identity card, phone and revolver were not found.
A family member said he learned of his death from the media while at a police station to report him missing. The family home in the suburbs of Beirut was silent in shock at Slim's murder.
His death has also shaken the entire country and there are already fears that it signals the return of political violence. Despite Lebanon's ongoing instability, such a crime has not occurred for years. The authorities, however, have already warned that the tension caused by the political standoff and economic crisis is leading to a return of violence and killings.
Slim's criticism of Hezbollah made him the target of criticism from supporters of the armed movement, who referred to him disparagingly as "an Embassy Shia", a term they use to accuse opponents of being US puppets.
The circumstances of the crime have not yet been clarified, although a security official said an investigation had been launched.
Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi described the crime as "horrendous" in statements to local television station MTV.
Slim founded and ran Umam, a film production company where he organised public debates, political photos and art exhibitions. He also had a large library dedicated to Lebanese and Shia history.
As a political activist, he founded the Haya Bina (Let's Go) group in 2005, whose goals are citizen participation in electoral processes and changing the sect-based power system. He also advocated building a full and secular democracy to end the confessionalism that reigns in Lebanese politics.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Slim's assassination "appalling" and said it was a "cowardly and unacceptable" act to silence him.
"We urge the Lebanese authorities, including political and judicial leaders, to hold those who committed these barbaric acts accountable without delay or exception," Blinken said in a statement.
Hezbollah, the main suspect, immediately denied any involvement in the activist's death.
The Shi'ite armed group, which is represented in the country's parliament and government, is the only Lebanese faction that has not dismantled its military arsenal in the aftermath of the civil war. It is considered by the United States and the European Union, among others, as a terrorist organisation. Washington, in fact, has intensified sanctions against its officials and allies in Lebanon.