Blast Stirs Dark Memories, Solidarity

Special to The Times

It was a page out of Lebanon's dark past: plumes of black smoke billowing over central Beirut, windows shattering along the city's famed waterfront.

Charred and dismembered bodies were strewn along a seaside street usually full of joggers. Dazed and bloodied victims emerged from nearby buildings, some carried by co-workers, others stumbling over broken glass and debris to ambulances.

Monday's car bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was the biggest such blast in Lebanon since the civil war ended 15 years ago. It exploded at 12:55 p.m. as the billionaire businessman and architect of the nation's postwar reconstruction passed the picturesque, luxury St. Georges and Phoenicia hotels.

Police and soldiers cordoned off the area. More than 135 people were wounded in the explosion, which set almost two dozen cars ablaze and blew out the facades of nearby hotels and a British bank. The explosion was heard up to 18 miles away in the eastern hills overlooking the city.

"There were papers flying everywhere and people in the office were bleeding and screaming," said Rayan Hussami, a 23-year-old employee of the bank. "It was very dusty, it was hard to breathe," he added, his blue-and-white pinstriped shirt spotted with the blood of a co-worker he had helped to an ambulance.

In a city that became synonymous with car bombings during a bloody civil conflict from 1975 to 1990, Monday's attack jogged painful memories for many Lebanese.

"I don't want to remember what this day reminds me of," said Ahmed Souheil, a 54-year-old owner of a clothing store facing the Phoenicia Hotel.

"I lived through the war and I don't want to relive any part of it," he said, pushing aside a wisp of gray hair as he wiped the dust off a beige sports jacket hanging on a rack.

At the Western Union office next door, Mohammed Saifi stood behind his dusty shop counter. The neon sign out front dangled precariously from one end, over shards of glass.

"Today we are all Hariri," the elderly man said defiantly, puffing on a cigarette and finishing his coffee. "After decades of war, nothing will scare us."

Shopkeepers swept up broken glass, while lunchtime customers at cafes left their plates to gather around television sets and watch the news.

"The phones stopped working," said George Shartouni, a lanky 18-year-old waiter at an outdoor cafe a few blocks from the blast. "I dropped everything and ran along glass-covered streets to make sure my family was OK."

Hariri's body was taken across town to the hospital at the American University of Beirut, where hundreds of people gathered and wept. Some stood in silence; others verged on the hysterical.

"What did he do? Why did they kill him?" asked one woman in her 20s who had been shopping nearby when she heard the news. "I'm scared of what has happened. How can they kill a man like Hariri?" she added as mascara-stained tears streamed down her face.

"We know who killed you, dear Rafik," said Mahmoud Rais, a bearded middle-aged man who stood on a garden planter outside the hospital to address the crowd. "Lebanon was uniting. The different groups were closing ranks against the Syrians. The truth cannot be covered up anymore," he said to cheers and chants of "Allahu akbar" (God is great).

"They want to keep us at each other's throats," the construction worker added, "but we will unite behind Hariri's vision and make sure this ugly crime backfires on them."

Walid Freki, a 42-year-old florist waiting outside the hospital, said he feared Hariri's death might destabilize the country ahead of parliamentary elections in May.

"This was designed to delay the elections," the bespectacled man said. "But the violence and the threat of violence will not work. It didn't work in Iraq and it won't work here."

On the other side of Beirut, hundreds of angry young men gathered outside Hariri's palatial home. While opposition members held an emergency meeting inside, many of those outside were inconsolable. Most carried black flags or pictures of the late leader; many were crying; others were hoarse from screaming.

"Rafik Hariri is the martyr of Lebanon," they chanted. "Syria out, Syria out!"

They refused to heed calls by a member of Hariri's parliamentary bloc who temporarily left the meeting inside Hariri's home to try to calm the crowd and assure them that the former premier's political agenda would be fulfilled.

"We want the truth," someone in the crowd interjected.

"You've spoken; now it's our turn -- Syria out!" some of the young men chanted.

Elsewhere in the capital, there were reports that an office of the local branch of Syria's ruling Baath Party was set ablaze.

"If they're not burning it down, I hope they will," said Yassin Issam, one of Hariri's family physicians, who flew in from Saudi Arabia with one of Hariri's four sons, Saadeddine, in the early evening.

"But we have not lost all hope," he said from the hallway of Hariri's home. "The people who did this want to scare us, they want us to leave, but we won't. This will have the opposite effect."

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