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Troops on alert in tense Lebanon after Hariri killing
Updated: 2005-02-15 13:53

Lebanese troops were on alert across the country on Tuesday as the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in a car bomb blast raised fears of a political crisis and rekindled raw memories of civil war.

A massive car bomb killed Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri on Beirut's waterfront February 14, 2005 witnesses and security sources said. Hariri is seen in this September 20 file photo.[Reuters]
Hariri, a billionaire who masterminded the rebuilding of the country after the 1975-90 civil war, was killed as his motorcade passed through an exclusive part of Beirut's seafront, four months after he resigned as prime minister.

Opposition leaders said Syria, which keeps 14,000 troops here and plays a powerbroker role resented by some Lebanese, bore responsibility for Hariri's death. They demanded the government resign and called for a three-day strike.

But they stopped short of accusing Damascus or the Syrian-backed Lebanese government of any outright involvement.

Army patrols made up of three or four army vehicles drove through the largely empty streets of central Beirut, where shops were shut at the start of three days of mourning for Hariri.

Soldiers armed with M-16 assault rifles were seen manning checkpoints at main streets in the capital.

At least 14 others were killed in the blast, the biggest in Lebanon since the end of the civil war. Officials said 135 others were injured.

A group of protesters outside the Lebanon headquarters of the Syria's ruling Baath party accused Damascus on Monday of plotting the killing. They pelted the building with stones on Monday and burned pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Hariri supporters gathered outside the Beirut hospital where he was taken and more chanted anti-Syrian slogans outside his palace in Qoreitem neighborhood, witnesses said.

Hariri's funeral was planned for Wednesday, and the government called three days of national mourning.


U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he hoped the killing would not reignite civil war. President Bush was "shocked and angered," the White House said.

"It is imperative that the already fragile situation in the region should not be further destabilized," Annan's spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

The United States condemned the blast and said it would consult U.N. Security Council members about punitive measures. The Security Council planned a formal meeting on Tuesday about the killing as well as its resolution demanding Syrian troops get out of Lebanon.

Since it helped broker the end of the war, Syria has maintained its grip on Lebanon, where it has pervasive intelligence services and widespread economic interests.

Damascus hopes its support for Hizbollah guerrillas, who fought a long war of attrition with Israel and still clash on the Lebanese border, will be a useful bargaining chip in any peace deal with Israel to get back the occupied Golan Heights.

Tensions were already running high as campaigning started for parliamentary elections in May which were widely seen as a bellwether on Syria's influence in Lebanon.

It was not immediately clear whether the polls would now be postponed. The European Union urged the Lebanese government to press ahead with the ballot.

The highest profile assassination since the end of the civil war prompted fears, never far from the minds of Lebanese, of a new slide into bloodshed that once tore their country apart.

"It was bad deja vu," said Nazha Merebi, a 36-year-old recruitment officer. "Today, I just thought: oh my god, it's happening again. I grew up in the war. I know what it's like and I don't want it to happen again."

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