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Mob blames Syria for Hariri assassination
Updated: 2005-02-15 22:50

BEIRUT, Lebanon - An angry mob attacked Syrian workers in southern Lebanon Tuesday and another group threw stones and set fires outside a Syrian government office in Beirut, blaming Damascus for the bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Syria has denied any involvement in Hariri's assassination, which raised fears that Lebanon might revert to the political violence of the 1970s and '80s, and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut warned Americans in the Lebanese capital to exercise extreme caution.

Condemnation and expressions of shock came from around the Arab world and beyond. The United States called Monday's attack "a terrible reminder" that Lebanon still must shake free of occupation by Syria, which maintains 15,000 troops here since the civil war ended in 1990 and has the final say in internal Lebanese politics.

Before his assassination, Hariri had positioned himself in opposition to a faction more solidly backed by Syria.

In Hariri's hometown of Sidon on southern Lebanon's Mediterranean coast, dozens of demonstrators attacked Syrian workers Tuesday, slightly wounding five before police intervened. Hundreds of others marched in the streets. Black banners and pictures of the slain leader covered the streets as the country began three days of official mourning.

On Monday night, a mob attacked the offices of the Lebanese chapter of Syria's ruling Baath Party in Beirut with stones and set fire to shacks used to exchange money and sell cigarettes in front of it.

Police said the toll from the bombing was 14 dead and about 120 injured. A claim of responsibility by a previously unknown Islamic militant group — Support and Jihad in Syria and Lebanon — was not considered credible, with Justice Minister Adnan Addoum warning it could be an attempt "to mislead the investigation."

At the site of the bombing, cordoned off by troops, experts combed rooftops and the street for evidence. Security officials have not confirmed initial reports that said the blast was caused by a car bomb. Residents swept debris from their balconies; at the HSBC bank, workers cleared glass shards and blinds from shattered windows, throwing them down to the street.

Hariri's political allies are openly accusing Syria and its Lebanese government allies for the bombing, and Hariri's family on Tuesday also hinted at their possible role.

Asked by reporters the reason for the assassination, Hariri's son, Saadeddine, replied in his first public comment: "It's obvious. Isn't it?"

He did not elaborate, but on Monday evening he had sat next to a group of opposition politicians who held a symbolic meeting at Hariri's Beirut mansion, then came out with a statement blaming Syria and the Lebanese government for the assassination.

Saadeddine Hariri told reporters at the bombing scene Tuesday that he hoped justice will be served. "My father served Lebanon all his life, and we will keep serving Lebanon also, like him."

Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon, and Hariri, who was Lebanon's prime minister for 10 of the last 14 years, began moving in recent months closer to the opposition, which has waged an unprecedented political campaign to pressure Damascus into withdrawing its army.

Hariri, who resigned in October but whose party was competing in upcoming elections, had the wealth and prominence to maintain a degree of independence from Syria. His death at age 60 deprives the political scene of an influential voice of moderation and skillful builder of coalitions.

At Hariri's Beirut residence Tuesday, long lines of mourners offered condolences to the family. Dignitaries also arrived to pay their respects, including Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam, a longtime friend; Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos; and Hariri's political ally, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the Maronite Catholic Church.

The assassination was expected to have a negative effect on the economy. Hariri, a billionaire construction tycoon, was credited with attracting Arab and foreign investment and with stabilizing the Lebanese currency.

The bomb that killed Hariri detonated in the downtown district he helped to rebuild after Lebanon's civil war. Just blocks from the blast site and its deep crater, tourists had returned in recent years to gather at sidewalk cafes under buildings rebuilt in warm yellow stone.

The dead in the bombing included Hariri and seven of his bodyguards, crushed and burned in their heavily armored cars by the force of the blast, which police estimated at about 660 pounds of the high explosive TNT. Four of the dead remained unidentified. A body was retrieved Tuesday from the adjacent, onetime famed but now disused St. George Hotel.

Former Economy Minister Bassel Fleihan, a member of parliament in Hariri's bloc, was among those severely wounded. He was flown to France on Monday for treatment.

TV stations and radios played somber music or readings from the Quran, Islam's holy book, Tuesday as the country prepared to bury Hariri. A ceremony was planned Wednesday at a downtown Beirut mosque.

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