Bomb kills Lebanese ex-prime minister

Member of Parliament was driving force behind much of reconstruction

February 15, 2005|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Former Lebanese prime minister and billionaire construction magnate Rafik Hariri was killed by a powerful car bomb yesterday afternoon as his motorcade wended through a posh seaside neighborhood that he helped erect over the ruins of civil war.

The blast shook the ground for miles, chewed a crater three yards deep in the street and swathed luxury hotels and restaurants in thick black smoke. At least nine people died along with Hariri, and more than 135 were wounded.

It was unclear who had killed the 60-year-old Hariri or why. He resigned as prime minister last year amid a mounting political battle over Syria's longtime occupation of Lebanon, but remained a member of parliament and had moved toward the anti-Syrian opposition. Many people held out hope that he would again serve in a top political post.

Hariri's assassination raised fears of a dangerous escalation in tension over the 16,000 Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents who maintain a chokehold on Lebanese politics.

Syria has defied a September U.N. Security Council resolution calling on it to relinquish its hold on Lebanon, and the blast comes as this traumatized and politically fragile nation prepares warily for parliamentary elections this spring.

In a tape sent to Al-Jazeera satellite TV, a man seated before a black flag said that Hariri, who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia and held Saudi citizenship, was a "Saudi agent" who was killed because of his ties to the Saudi royal family.

The tape's authenticity could not be verified.

Last night, Lebanese security forces stormed the home of a man they said had made the tape. Nobody was home, but agents seized documents, computer equipment and videotapes.

Yet many Lebanese, from opposition leaders to analysts and ordinary people, scorned the mysterious claim of responsibility and blamed Syria for Hariri's death. In a nation where most people hadn't dared to speak publicly of the Syrian occupation, mourners in the streets shouted "Syria out!"

"I fear neither death nor jail! I will scream it at the top of my lungs: `God damn the Syrians!'" yelled Fatme Hassan, a 50-year-old woman who was among hundreds of dazed and hysterical mourners who flocked to the hospital after the blast.

"They killed our leader. They killed him because he was a national figure, a unifying figure. Where are we headed?"

Syrian President Bashar Assad quickly denounced the bombing as a "horrible criminal action."

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, had won three elections and served as prime minister for a total of 10 years since the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. He stepped down as premier in October after Lebanon's parliament, pressured by Syria, voted to amend the constitution in order to extend pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's six-year term by three years.

Still, Hariri refrained from taking vehement stands. He was a moderate who often chose disapproving silence over condemnations and struggled to carve out neutral turf between two bitterly opposed camps.

"He did not stick his head out or show any serious position. He didn't come out publicly and embarrass the government," said Jamil Mroue, publisher of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper. "But the insinuation was that he'd join the opposition [to Syrian rule]. This country is just too small; his predisposition was known."

As a political figure, Hariri was deeply linked to the struggle over the Syrian occupation -- and analysts agreed that no matter who killed him, Syria would be hit with the fallout.

"Certainly, the mood is very clearly that Syria did this," said Michael Young, a Lebanese analyst and newspaper columnist. "Syria will be blamed for it no matter who did it. They'll be even more isolated internationally than they already are."

The Bush administration, which has been particularly critical of Damascus in recent weeks, said the bombings demonstrated the need for Syria to withdraw troops from its neighbor.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the United States would "consult with other governments in the region and on the [United Nations] Security Council today about measures that can be taken to punish those responsible for this terrorist attack, to end the use of violence and intimidation against the Lebanese people and to restore Lebanon's independence, sovereignty and democracy by freeing it from foreign occupation."

Since the end of the civil war brought calm to Lebanon, the bullet-pocked, crumbling buildings and weed-tangled streets of Beirut's waterfront have been revamped into one of the most striking city centers in the Middle East.

The bright rows of limestone buildings, trendy shops and restaurants were the work of a public-private partnership spearheaded by Hariri. The reconstruction of the capital was Lebanon's symbolic farewell to its wrenching conflict, and Hariri was seen as its driving force.

But beneath a polished surface, the country is still veined with bitter sectarian divides among Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Druze and Christians. In recent months, clashes have escalated between Syrian loyalists and an increasingly vocal opposition calling for Lebanon's liberation.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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