Several of Hariri’s bodyguards were among those killed. The former prime minister’s motorcade was struck just after he left a meeting in Lebanon’s parliament where he had discussed a proposed law for the scheduling of national elections. Former economy minister Basil Fuleihan, who was in one of the vehicles in the motorcade, was critically wounded.
The bomb blast tore away building facades, set nearby cars on fire, left a huge black crater in the ground and shattered windows a kilometer away, according to news reports.
Hariri, who was elected prime minister five times over a 14-year career, resigned in October 2004 after friction with Lebanon’s Syrian-backed president Emile Lahoud. Hariri was reportedly planning a political comeback.
Hariri, a billionaire who owned construction and media companies, had recently called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Syria has played a prominent and dominant role in Lebanon since the beginning of the country’s bloody civil war in 1975. Some 20,000 Syrian troops remain in Lebanon.
In late 2004 Syria successfully lobbied the Lebanese parliament to amend the nation’s constitution in order to allow Lahoud another term as president. Hariri voted for and signed the measure in order to avoid a public disagreement with the Syrian government, but he reportedly resigned in a “silent protest” over the pressure from Damascus.
A previously unknown organization calling itself the “Group for Victory and Holy War in the Levant” claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack in a video aired on Al-Jazeera television. The Levant is a historical name for a region that includes Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories and Jordan. The group accused Hariri of being an agent of the Saudi government.
Hariri lived and did business as a builder in Saudi Arabia for many years. His clients included the Saudi royal family.
“For the sake of our Mujahideen brothers in Saudi Arabia … we decided to implement the just execution of those who support this regime,” a bearded man said on the tape. “This was a martyrdom operation we carried out. … This is the beginning of many martyrdom operations against the infidels and apostates in the Levant.”
Hariri’s body was taken to the American University hospital in Beirut where supporters gathered to mourn and honor the man credited with rebuilding Lebanon and war-scarred Beirut after the civil war, which killed 150,000 Lebanese between 1975 and 1990.
During the war Lebanese military and Christian militias battled Palestinian guerrilla groups and Muslim militias. Israel, Syria and Iran backed separate groups with funds and weapons. Syria sent in troops in 1976 at the request of Lebanon’s president. An internationally brokered cease-fire in 1981 lasted for only a year. Israel invaded in 1982, the same year Hariri entered Lebanese politics. A political power-sharing arrangement led to a peace agreement in 1989.
On Monday the Syrian government condemned the attack.
“Syria regards this as an act of terrorism, a crime that seeks to destabilize (Lebanon),” Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhl-Allah said, according to the Reuters news service.
The United States also condemned the bombing and urged Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.
“We condemn this brutal attack in the strongest possible terms,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday. “This murder today is 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.”
The Lebanese government has called for three days of national mourning.