Blast kills former Lebanese leader

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A powerful bomb tore through the motorcade of a former prime minister Monday, killing him, carving a 30-foot hole in a street and turning armored cars into burning wrecks. The devastation harked back to Lebanon's violent past and raised fears of new bloodshed in the bitter dispute over Syria, the country's chief power broker.

The blast wounded 100 people and killed 10, including the main target: Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman who helped rebuild Lebanon after its civil war, but had recently fallen out with Syria.

The United States called the attack "a terrible reminder" that Lebanon still must shake free of occupation by Syria -- the neighbor that keeps 15,000 troops here and influences virtually all key political decisions.

Syria denied any role and condemned the assassination. But opposition leaders in Lebanon said they held both the Lebanese and Syrian governments responsible and demanded Syrian troops withdraw.

Hariri, 60, left office in October but had the wealth and the prominence to maintain some degree of independence from Syria, while never moving toward total defiance.

His shift toward the opposition in recent months had given a boost to calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops -- and his death silenced an influential and moderate voice that could prove hard to replace.

It was unclear whether his killing would delay parliamentary elections that had been expected in April and May.

Top government officials met in emergency session, then instructed the army and internal security forces "to take all necessary measures to control the security situation."

There were no credible claims of responsibility. A previously unknown group, Support and Jihad in Syria and Lebanon, said in a video broadcast on Al-Jazeera television that it carried out the bombing, which it termed a suicide operation.

Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh did not rule out a suicide attack, telling television station Al-Hayat-LBC that it would have been difficult to detonate the explosive by remote control due to the sophisticated jamming system in Hariri's motorcade.

More than 650 pounds of TNT were used in the midday bombing, security officials said. They did not say whether the explosives were placed in a vehicle or on the street. The explosion gouged a crater in the street 30 feet wide and 9 feet deep.

Under Hariri, European investment in Lebanon rebounded, and tourists, particularly from the Arab world and to a lesser extent Europe, have returned to the country once called the Paris of the Middle East.

Explosions in Beirut -- while common during the 1975-1990 civil war -- have become rare as the country has largely enjoyed a return to peace. In October, however, amid rising tensions between the government and opposition groups, a car bomb seriously wounded an opposition politician and killed his driver in Beirut.

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