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Bomb kills former Lebanese Prime Minister
Updated: 2005-02-14 21:23

BEIRUT, Lebanon - A massive bomb tore through the motorcade of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who resigned last fall following a sharp dispute with Syria, killing him and at least nine other people Monday.

An injured man is carried in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Feb. 14, 2005. Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive bomb explosion that ravaged his motorcade on Beirut's famed seafront corniche Monday, a Cabinet minister said. [AP]
About 100 people were also wounded in the assassination, which raised immediate fears that Lebanon — largely peaceful since the 1990 end of its civil war — would be plunged into a new cycle of violence.

Hariri, who left office in October, had the wealth and the prominence to maintain some independence without defying Lebanon's main power broker, Syria, which keeps about 15,000 troops in the country and influences virtually all key political decisions.

At least 20 cars were set on fire in a blast that damaged a British bank and the landmark Phoenicia Hotel along the Mediterranean waterfront.

The 12:55 p.m. (5:55 a.m. EST) explosion was so powerful that Hariri's motorcade of bulletproof vehicles was left a burning wreck and a 30-foot crater was gouged in the street.

More than 650 pounds of TNT explosives were used in the bombing, security officials said on condition of anonymity. They did not say whether the explosives were placed in a vehicle or on the side of the street.

There were no credible claims of responsibility, although a previously unknown group, calling itself Support and Jihad in Syria and Lebanon, said it had carried out the bombing. It said the attack was a suicide operation and would be followed by more attacks "against infidels, renegades and tyrants." The claim, which could not be authenticated, appeared in a video aired on Al-Jazeera satellite television.

Former Economy Minister Bassel Fleihan, a member of parliament in Hariri's bloc, was severely wounded and admitted to the intensive care unit of the American University Hospital, said another pro-Hariri legislator, Atef Majdalani. Hariri's own Future TV reported that Fleihan was in critical condition and the hospital was preparing to transfer him abroad.

Hariri, 60, had moved toward the opposition camp after leaving office in October — in large part because of a dispute concerning Syria's controversial role in Lebanon. Hariri had rejected a Syrian-backed insistence that a rival politician, President Emile Lahoud, remain in office as president for a longer period.

Syrian dominates Lebanon politically and militarily, and Hariri was careful to avoid openly defying Damascus, although his stature could have been a formidable opponent. New elections are expected in April and May, but no date has been set.

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, served 10 of 14 years in the postwar period starting in 1992 __ winning three separate elections. His assassination removes a main political buffer in a country divided among an opposition strongly opposed to Syria's role, and the pro-Syrian government camp.

Under Hariri, European investment in Lebanon had been rebounding in recent years, and tourists, particularly from the Arab world and to a lesser extent Europe, also have been coming back to the rebuilt country.

The White House paid tribute to Hariri as a man who "worked tirelessly to rebuild a free, independent and prosperous Lebanon."

"This murder today is a terrible reminder that the Lebanese people must be able to pursue their aspirations and determine their own political future, free from violence, and intimidation and free from Syrian occupation," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad said he "condemned this horrible criminal action," according to SANA, Syria's official news agency. Assad urged the Lebanese people to reject those who plant "schism among the people" during this "critical situation."

In Paris, Lebanon's most prominent exile, former army commander Gen. Michel Aoun, blamed Syria for the bombing and what he called the "feeble regime imposed by Syria" for the assassination.

"I think all these together are behind this crime," Aoun told Al-Arabiya TV, which is based in Dubai.

French President Jacques Chirac, a friend of Hariri, condemned the attack and demanded an international investigation, saying he represented "the indefatigable will of independence, freedom and democracy" for Lebanon.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier suggested that the democratic process was the real target of the attack.

"What is targeted is probably the democratic process and the political process that must be undertaken" in Lebanon, Barnier said in an apparent reference to upcoming elections there.

Lebanon's Supreme Council for Defense instructed the army and internal security forces "to take all necessary measures to control the security situation." The council, which groups the president, Cabinet ministers and military officials, declared three days of national mourning.

President Emile Lahoud, a longtime rival of Hariri, called the killing "a dark point in our national history." He promised the perpetrators would be brought to justice.

The Lebanese National News Agency, quoting a statement from American University Hospital, said Hariri was dead on arrival, his body mutilated in the massive explosion that shook buildings in the city center and was heard in outlying hills overlooking the Lebanese capital.

Nine other people were also killed in the massive blast and 100 were wounded, the news agency said. Several of Hariri's bodyguards were among those hurt or killed, Lebanese legislator Bassem Yammout told The Associated Press at the scene.

In a dramatic scene captured on TV, a burning man struggled to get out of a car window and fell on to the ground. A bystander rushed up and beat out the flames with his jacket before picking up the blackened man. It was not clear if the man survived.

Bystanders and ambulance workers made crude stretchers to carry the wounded to hospital. TV showed several men dragging the body of a victim partially covered by a brown blanket through the rubble-strewn street before letting go of his arms and letting him fall to the ground. Flames still licked from his body and his face appeared disfigured by burns.

Heavily armed security forces cordoned off the area as rescue workers and investigators searched for casualties or clues to the cause of the explosion. Rubble and twisted debris covered a road lined with burning cars, with smoke enveloping the area as firefighters carrying hoses raced to douse flames.

Hariri's supporters quickly took to the streets, chanting praise for him outside the hospital. In his hometown of Sidon, supporters blocked roads and burned tires.

Explosions in Beirut — while common during the 1975-90 civil war — have become rare since the conflict ended. In October, however, amid rising tensions between the government and opposition groups, a car bomb seriously injured an opposition politician and killed his driver in Beirut.

A self-made billionaire, Hariri became prime minister in 1992 under the terms of a 1989 peace deal that required the premier to be a Sunni Muslim. He served until 1998, and again from 2000 until his resignation in October. He was considered to be in the opposition. He has been in a rivalry with Lahoud for years.

Hariri, a construction tycoon who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, held joint Lebanese-Saudi citizenship even as premier. A French firm he later acquired, Oger, became one of the largest construction businesses in the Mideast. His personal wealth had been estimated at $4 billion.

During Lebanon's civil war, Hariri funded charitable ventures, and, when the violence subsided, used trucks from his construction company to clear debris. Later, in government, he was criticized for allegedly handing reconstruction contracts to firms he had financial dealings with.

Hariri enjoyed the backing of Western governments; in 2002, he met with President Bush in Washington.

He is survived by his wife, Nazik Hariri, and six children.

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