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Monday, February 14, 2005

Yahoo! News - Bomb Kills Former Lebanese Prime Minister

Yahoo! News - Bomb Kills Former Lebanese Prime Minister


(AP Photo/Saleh Rifai)

By BASSEM MROUE and JOSEPH PANOSSIAN, Associated Press Writers

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a billionaire who helped rebuild his country after decades of war but resigned last fall after a sharp dispute with Syria, was killed Monday in a massive bomb explosion that tore through his motorcade. At least nine other people were dead and 100 wounded in the blast.

At least 20 cars were set on fire in a blast that devastated the front of the famous St. George Hotel, blowing off balconies, and damaged a British bank and the Phoenicia Hotel along the Mediterranean waterfront.

Hariri 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.

The United States has strongly criticized Syria's interference in the country.

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, served 10 of 14 years in the postwar period starting in 1992 __ winning three separate elections.

The news agency, quoting a statement from American University Hospital, said Hariri was dead on arrival, his body mutilated in the massive explosion.

Beirut's main television stations reported Hariri's death, but his own station, Future TV, did not carry the report. However, it switched into readings from the Quran in a sign of mourning.

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.

Syria's President Bashar Assad called the attack "a horrible criminal act," according to Al-Jazeera television. Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah told Al-Jazeera the assassination "targeted Lebanon and Syria," reflecting the closeness of the two countries' leaderships.

Hariri's motorcade of bulletproof vehicles was left a burning wreck by the blast, which blew a 30-foot crater in the street and shattered nearby windows.

Bystanders and ambulance workers made crude stretchers to carry the wounded to vehicles to take them to nearby hospitals. TV video 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, his face disfigured by burns.

Several young women with blood running down their faces had to be helped from the scene.

Heavily armed security forces cordoned off the area with yellow tape as rescue workers and investigators searched the scene for casualties or clues to what caused the huge explosion.

The explosion shortly before noon (5 a.m. EST) shook buildings in the city center and was heard in outlying hills overlooking the Lebanese capital.

Rubble and twisted debris covered a road lined with burning cars, with smoke enveloping the area as firefighters carrying hoses raced to douse flames.

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.

Hariri, a self-made billionaire who was prime minister from 1992-98, and again from 2000-04, resigned in October and was considered to be in the opposition. He has been in a rivalry with Lahoud for years.

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