Thursday, February 17, 2005

Hariri's death sparks political backlash

Lebanon's Damascus-backed leaders face a massive public backlash and international pressure to find the killers of former premier Rafiq Hariri as mourners unite in blaming Syria for his murder.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese turned out for Mr Hariri's funeral yesterday, chanting "Syria out".

"The reality they (the Government) should ponder is that Hariri's funeral turnout was a massive, popular vote of no-confidence in the Government," the Daily Star said.

"Damascus should also take the heed of what is a poignant message."

The funeral came as the United States led international calls for a Syrian troop withdrawal and end to its political domination of its tiny neighbour.

"There needs to be an international investigation," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Senate hearing, after Washington recalled its ambassador to Syria over the killing but stopped short from blaming Damascus.

French President Jacques Chirac, in Beirut to pay his condolences, demanded that "light be shed" on the killing of his close friend Mr Hariri, as similar calls came from Saudi Arabia and the European Union.

The family of Mr Hariri, the billionaire architect of Lebanon's post-war revival, has backed the calls for an international probe.

The family is urging Arab and world support for a UN Security Council demand for a probe to find and punish the culprits.

"We pledge that the blood of Rafiq Hariri and his comrades will not have been shed in vain and we will not spare any effort to unmask those who ordered this crime, no matter their position," a family statement said.

"We call on the Arab and the international communities to implement the declaration of the president of the Security Council... to identify and punish the culprits within a short and reasonable time."

Mr Hariri's killing has added to high political tensions over Syria's powerbroker role in Lebanon ahead of May elections and raised fears of a revival of the confessional conflict that ripped the country apart in the 1975-1990 civil war.

However, the country appeared united in grief on Wednesday when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from all religious communities swarmed the streets of Beirut for his funeral.

The five-time prime minister was killed along with 14 other people, including seven of his bodyguards, in what officials said could have been a suicide car bombing.

However, there have been some suggestions the explosives were planted under the road.

The attack came four months after Mr Hariri, 60, resigned in a row with Damascus-backed President Emile Lahoud over Syria's domination of his country.

By The Daily Star 17 February 05