Ex-Lebanese PM Hariri killed in Beirut motorcade blast

The explosion that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on Monday proves that some groups – including countries such as Lebanon and Syria – are trying to destabilize the region and prevent democracy from reaching the Arab world, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Monday. Hariri was killed when a massive explosion targeted his motorcade as it traveled through Beirut. At least nine other people were killed in the blast along the city’s famed seafront boulevard. Those killed included at least one of his bodyguards, witnesses said. Lebanon’s official news agency, quoting a statement from American University Hospital in Beirut, said that Hariri arrived dead at the hospital, his body mutilated in the massive explosion. One possibility is that sources close to Syria, which has at least 14,000 soldiers stationed in Lebanon, were responsible for the blast. The blast “proves that there are organizations and countries, such as Syria and Lebanon, striving to undermine the stability in the region and prevent democratization in the Arab world,” Israel Radio quoted Shalom as saying. Shalom was in Paris, meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, when he heard the news. 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.” Hariri, a self-made billionaire, led Lebanon for most of the period since the 1975-1990 civil war ended. Since leaving office in October, he was considered to be in opposition – in large part because of a dispute concerning Syria’s controversial role in Lebanon. Hariri had rejected a Syrian-backed insistence that rival politician, President Emile Lahoud, remain in office for a longer period. Former economy minister Bassel Fleihan, a member of parliament in Hariri’s bloc, was severely wounded and admitted to the intensive care unit of the American University Hospital, said another pro-Hariri legislator, Atef Majdalani. Hariri’s television station reported that Fleihan was in critical condition and the hospital was preparing to transfer him abroad. An emergency Cabinet meeting was called and Lebanon’s supreme defense council – security Cabinet ministers, top leaders and military officials – were in session at the presidential palace, a presidential spokesman said. The front of the famous St. George Hotel was devastated in the blast, with several balconies blown off. Along the famed Mediterranean corniche, at least 20 cars were in flames or destroyed, and the fronts of several other bulidings were heavily damaged, including a British bank and the landmark Phoenicia Hotel. 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. Witnesses at the scene confirmed that Hariri’s motorcade had just passed the area shortly before the bomb went off. TV footage showed dramatic scenes of one burning man struggling to get out of a car window, then falling on the ground. He was helped by a bystander who used his jacket to put out the flames, but it was not clear if he survived. Several young women were seen with blood running down their faces. Some had to be helped from the scene. 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. The explosion near the city’s waterfront shortly before noon (1000GMT) 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, the smoke from which enveloping the area as firefighters carrying houses raced to douse flames. BPI-info