Beirut blast kills former Lebanese PM Hariri

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The former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed today when a massive bomb explosion tore through his motorcade on Beirut's famed seafront corniche.

The former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed today when a massive bomb explosion tore through his motorcade on Beirut's famed seafront corniche.

Hariri, a billionaire who helped rebuild his country after decades of war but resigned last autumn during a sharp dispute with Syria, died as at least nine other people were killed and 100 wounded.

It raised immediate fears that Lebanon - largely peaceful since the 1990 end of its civil war - was headed toward a new and bloody twist in its divisive dispute over the role of Syria, which maintains about 15,000 troops in the country.

The Lebanese National News Agency, quoting a statement from American University Hospital, said Hariri was pronounced dead on arrival, his body mutilated in the massive explosion.

Some 300 kilograms of TNT explosives were used in the bombing, security officials said. They did not say whether the explosives were placed in a vehicle or on the side of the street.

There were no credible claims of responsibility, however, a previously unknown group, calling itself Support and Jihad in Syria and Lebanon, said it had carried out the bombing. It said the attack was a suicide operation and would be followed by more attacks "against infidels, renegades and tyrants." The claim, which could not be authenticated, appeared in a video aired on Al-Jazeera satellite television.

Lebanon's Supreme Council for Defense instructed the army and internal security forces "to take all necessary measures to control the security situation". The council, which comprises the president, Cabinet ministers and military officials, declared three days of national mourning.

President Emile Lahoud, a long time rival of Hariri, issued a statement saying the killing was "a dark point in our national history". He promised the perpetrators would be brought to justice.

In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan paid tribute to Hariri and said the assassination was "a terrible reminder that the Lebanese people must be able to pursue their aspirations and determine their own political future, free from violence, and intimidation and free from Syrian occupation."

Syrian President Bashar Assad said he "condemned this horrible criminal action," according to SANA, Syria's official news agency. Assad urged the Lebanese people to reject those who "(plant) schism among the people" during this "critical situation."

In Paris, Lebanon's most prominent exile, former army commander Gen. Michel Aoun, blamed Syria and what he called the "feeble regime imposed by Syria" for the assassination.

"I think all these together are behind this crime," Aoun told Al-Arabiya satellite television, which is based in Dubai.

Foremost among the wounded was former Economy Minister Bassel Fleihan, a member of parliament in Hariri's bloc, who was admitted to the intensive care unit of the American University Hospital, said another pro-Hariri legislator, Atef Majdalani. Hariri's own Future TV reported that Fleihan was in critical condition and the hospital was preparing to transfer him abroad.

Hariri's assassination removes a main political buffer in a country divided among an opposition strongly opposed to Syria's role, and the pro-Syrian government camp. He was killed after taking part in a parliamentary debate where the two camps are divided over a new election law for polls due in April and May.

Hariri's supporters quickly took to the streets, chanting his praises outside the American University Hospital where he was declared dead. In his hometown of Sidon, supporters blocked roads and burned tires.

Hariri was known to travel in a convoy of bulletproof cars that were equipped with systems to thwart the remote-controlled detonation of explosives. But the explosion at 12.55pm (10.55 GMT) was so powerful that Hariri's motorcade was left a burning wreck.

The explosion blew a 10-meter-wide crater in the street, set at least 20 cars on fire, and devastated the front of the famous St. George Hotel, blowing off its balconies.

In a dramatic scene captured on TV, a burning man struggled to get out of a car window and fell on to the ground. A bystander rushed up and beat out the flames with his jacket before picking up the blackened man. It was not clear if the man survived.

Bystanders and ambulance workers made crude stretchers to carry the wounded to hospital. TV showed several men dragging a slain 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 and his face appeared grossly disfigured by burns.

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

There was no credible claim of responsibility. The Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel said its Beirut office received a call from somebody who said a previously unknown group had killed Hariri.

Explosions in Beirut - while common during the 1975-90 civil war - have become rare since the conflict ended. However, in October, amid rising tensions between the government and opposition groups, a car bomb seriously injured an opposition politician and killed his driver in Beirut.

Hariri is a self-made billionaire who led Lebanon for 10 of the years since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. He was elected prime minister in 1992 and served until 1998, forming at least three Cabinets. He was elected again in 2000 and served until he resigned in October.

Hariri moved toward the opposition camp after leaving office - in large part because of a dispute concerning Syria's controversial role in Lebanon. Hariri had rejected a Syrian-backed insistence that his old rival, President Lahoud, remain in office as president for three more years.

Pro-Syrian allies of Lahoud accused Hariri of being behind the U.N. Security Council resolution in September that demanded Syria withdraw its army from Lebanon and stop interfering in the country. The resolution was sponsored by the United States and France.

Hariri was credited with rebuilding Lebanon from the destruction of the civil war, but he was faulted with shackling Lebanon with a debt of more than US$35 billion. His wide international business and political connections helped earn Lebanon wide recognition and attracted badly needed foreign investment.

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