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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Blast Kills Lebanon's Former Prime Minister

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a billionaire who helped rebuild his country after decades of war but resigned last fall amid a sharp dispute with Syria and its Lebanese allies, was killed Monday in a massive bomb explosion that tore through his motorcade.

At least nine other people were killed and around 100 wounded, including a former economy minister, in the blast, which raised immediate fears that Lebanon -- largely peaceful since the 1990 end of its civil war -- was headed toward a new and bloody twist in the continuing and divisive dispute over Syria's role.

The Lebanese National News Agency, quoting a statement from American University Hospital, said Hariri was pronounced dead on arrival, his body mutilated in the massive explosion.

Former Economy Minister Bassel Fleihan, a member of Parliament in Hariri's bloc, was severely wounded and admitted to the intensive care unit of American University Hospital, said another pro-Hariri legislator, Atef Majdalani. Hariri's own Future TV 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.

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 a "schism among the people" during this "critical situation."

Hariri's assassination removes a main political buffer in a country divided between an opposition strongly opposed to Syria's role and the pro-Syrian government camp.

The explosion at 12:55 p.m. local time was so powerful that Hariri's motorcade of bulletproof vehicles was left a burning wreck.

It was not immediately known whether the explosives had been planted in a car or a building, but they blew a 10-meter-wide crater in the street and shattered windows of hotels and apartment buildings.

At least 20 cars were set on fire in a blast that devastated the front of the famous St. George Hotel, blowing off balconies, and damaged a British bank and the Phoenicia Hotel.

Bystanders and ambulance workers made crude stretchers to carry the wounded to vehicles to take them to nearby hospitals.

Television footage showed several men dragging a slain victim partially covered by a brown blanket through the rubble-strewn street before letting go of his arms and letting him fall to the ground. Flames still licked from his body, and his face appeared grossly disfigured by burns.

Other dramatic scenes showed a burning man struggling to get out of a car window, then falling to 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.

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.

Hariri was a self-made billionaire who led Lebanon for 10 of the years since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. He was elected prime minister in 1992 and served until 1998, forming at least three Cabinets. He was elected again in 2000 and served until he resigned in October.

Hariri moved toward the opposition camp after leaving office -- in large part because of a dispute concerning Syria's controversial role in Lebanon. Hariri had previously rejected a Syrian-backed insistence that his old rival, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, remain in office as president for three more years.

Pro-Syrian allies of Lahoud accused Hariri of being behind the United Nations Security Council resolution in September that demanded Syria withdraw its army from Lebanon and stop interfering in the country. The resolution was sponsored by the United States and France.

Hariri was credited with rebuilding Lebanon from the destruction of the civil war, but he was faulted with shackling Lebanon with a debt of more than $35 billion.

His wide international business and political connections helped earn Lebanon broad recognition and attracted badly needed foreign investment.