14 February 2005

2005: Explosion kills former Lebanon PM

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has been killed in an apparent assassination in west Beirut.

The blast, which reports say killed about nine people and injured 100 others, may have been causesd by a car bomb.

It went off beside the derelict St Georges Hotel on the seafront, causing widespread damage.

The killing comes as tension is reported to be rising between Syria, Lebanon's political master, and members of the opposition.

Mr Hariri resigned as prime minister and joined the opposition last October.

He was hoping to stage a comeback in legislative elections next May.

It is still unclear what caused the massive explosion, but a little-known group calling itself Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria has issued a statement claiming the killing, saying it was a suicide bomb, says the BBC's Kim Ghattas in Beirut.

The authenticity of the statement could not be verified.

Lebanese opposition leaders have said they hold the Lebanese and Syrian governments responsible for the killing.

"We hold the Lebanese authority and the Syrian authority, being the authority of tutelage in Lebanon, responsible for this crime and other similar crimes," they said in a statement after a meeting held at the late leader's house in Beirut.

They also called for the government's resignation, for Syrian troops to withdraw from the country before the May elections and for a three-day strike.

The White House condemned the attack and said Lebanon should be allowed to pursue its political future "free from violence... and free from Syrian occupation".

Spokesman Scott McClellan said he was not trying to link Syria with the bombing, adding Washington did not know who was responsible, Reuters news agency reported.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad condemned Monday's attack as a "terrible criminal act".

Lebanon's former colonial power France, whose leader, President Jacques Chirac, had close ties with Mr Hariri, has called for an international inquiry into the blast.

A three-day mourning period has been declared in Lebanon.

Prime minister 1992-98 and 2000-04
Self-made billionaire
Trained as a teacher, but founded a successful construction company in Saudi Arabia
Born in 1944 to a poor Sunni Muslim family in the southern Lebanese port of Sidon

Beachfront attack

Mr Hariri, who was also an MP, attended a session at parliament in central Beirut shortly before the blast.

He was apparently heading home along the beachfront in a convoy when the explosion happened just before midday local time (1000 GMT), in a busy area full of hotels and banks.

Firefighters extinguish flames at scene of blast
The explosion left a huge crater

Members of his convoy are believed to have been killed in the blast. A former minister who was in the convoy is said to have been seriously injured.

The force of the blast left vehicles smouldering and shop fronts blown out and blackened, creating a huge crater.

Local television pictures showed a burning man fighting to get out of a car through its window, falling to the ground and being helped by a bystander.

Several young women were seen with blood running down their faces.

Lebanese security forces cordoned off the area with yellow tape as rescue workers and investigators combed the scene.

Later, supporters of the late prime minister took to the streets in Beirut and in his hometown of Sidon, in southern Lebanon, people burnt tyres on the streets in protest.

Leading politician

Mr Hariri has been the leading Lebanese politician since the end of the civil war in 1990, and prime minister for most of the last 15 years.

He was also a self-made billionaire businessman.

He resigned in October amid differences with Lebanon's pro-Syrian President, Emile Lahoud.

Since then, he had been considered part of the opposition, although he never formally attended their gatherings, our correspondent says.

Mr Hariri had recently joined calls by opposition politicians for a withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

France and the US had also been calling on Syria to end its meddling in Lebanese political affairs and to withdraw its troops from its smaller neighbour, our correspondent says.

Last October, a former minister and member of the opposition was injured in a car bomb attack in Beirut, in which his bodyguard was killed.-(bbc)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.