Wed, Feb 16, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Lebanon mourns former leader after assassination

BOMBING The death of the 60-year-old rags-to riches tycoon plunged the country into grief amid claims that the Beirut and Damascus governments were to blame


Lebanon was in mourning yesterday after five-time prime minister and billionaire tycoon Rafiq Hariri was assassinated here in a huge bomb blast that stoked fears of fresh sectarian strife 15 years after the end of the civil war.

Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition quickly blamed the governments in Beirut and Damascus of responsibility for the assassination of Hariri, who was killed along with at least nine other people when the explosion ripped through his motorcade.

About 100 people were also wounded in the blast that left a trail of carnage and devastation in a busy seafront area in scenes reminiscent of the 1975 to 1990 war.

Media reports said the blast was caused by a car bomb and a hitherto unknown Islamic group claimed responsibility for what it said was a suicide attack to avenge Hariri's close ties with the Saudi regime.

But Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, half-brother of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, expressed doubt about the authenticity of the group and called for an independent enquiry into the attack.

The dead included one of the bodyguards of the 60-year-old rags-to riches Sunni Muslim who resigned as prime minister four months ago in a row over Syrian dominance of Lebanon.

The attack plunged Lebanon into grief and raised worries about the stability of the country, which is treading a delicate path between its Sunni, Shiite and Christian communities.

It came at a time of high political tension in Lebanon and international pressure over Syria's role in the country, just a few months before legislative elections are due to be held.

The Lebanese army meanwhile announced a "general mobilization to safeguard stability" in the country, recalled soldiers on leave and deployed troops in Beirut and other regions.

The announcement came as relatives of Hariri said his family would hold a private funeral ceremony today, during which they did not wish the presence of any government officials.

While the government called for three days of mourning and a state funeral, Lebanese anti-Syrian opposition leaders demanded a three-day general strike, the resignation of the government and a Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon.

"We hold the Lebanese government and the Syrian government, the power behind it, responsible for the crime," Member of Parliament Bassem Sabeh said after an opposition meeting at Hariri's Beirut family home.

"We demand the resignation of the government, which has lost all legitimacy, and the formation of a caretaker government," said Sabeh, flanked by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and other opposition figures.

He said Syria should pull out its 14,000 troops from Lebanon before parliamentary elections due in a few months' time.

Hariri's rise was a rags to riches story. Born to a poor farmer in Sidon, he became one of the world's 100 richest people credited with spearheading Lebanon's post-war reconstruction.

He headed five governments from 1992, but later became a thorn in the side of Beirut's political masters in Damascus and resigned as premier in October after disputes with Lahoud.

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