Lebanese Officials Recall to Asharq Al-Awsat How they Heard News of Rafik Hariri’s Assassination

Lebanese Officials Recall to Asharq Al-Awsat How they Heard News of Rafik Hariri’s Assassination

Wednesday, 14 February, 2018 - 09:45
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive bombing in Beirut on February 14, 2005. (AFP)
Beirut - Caroline Akoum
Lebanon’s Mustaqbal Movement will hold on Wednesday a ceremony marking the 13th anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Held in Beirut, the ceremony will be an opportunity for the Mustaqbal bloc to underline the importance of supporting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) that is probing the murder in order to achieve justice and eliminate impunity in Lebanon.

Various political parties have been invited to the ceremony. The “Hezbollah” party, whose members have been indicted in the assassination, has been excluded from the event.

Rafik Hariri’s son, Prime Minister Saad Hariri is set to deliver a 40-minute speech on the commemoration that will be held in Beirut. He will not address the upcoming polls, but focus on the current reality in Lebanon and the region and stress the principles that the Movement and late premier represent.

Rafik Hariri and 21 others were killed in a massive bombing in Beirut on February 14, 2005. A parliament session, which the late premier attended, was held in the capital minutes before the assassination. Many in Lebanon blame the Syrian regime for being behind the crime because it had at the time been imposing its political and security hegemony over its smaller neighbor.

Peaceful popular protests broke out in Lebanon in wake of the assassination. Demonstrators called for the resignation of then President Emile Lahoud and the government of late PM Omar Karami. They also called on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

On the 13th anniversary of the assassination, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Lebanese officials who were close to the late Hariri and who met with him only minutes before his murder.

Former President Michel Suleiman: Strife was being plotted against Lebanon

On February 14, 2005, former President Michel Suleiman, then army commander, was preparing to have lunch at the military headquarters in Yarze, when he heard the loud explosion that took Hariri’s life. He immediately headed to the general command center and ordered for units to mobilize and carried out a series of contacts to follow up on the developments on the ground.

“I worked hard to preserve the democratic nature of the demonstrations. The army was given clear orders to prevent any tensions between protesters in order to preserve both security and freedom,” he explained.

“This allowed the demonstrators to express their feelings with complete freedom, contrary to the expectations of the political authorities at the time,” he recalled.

This atmosphere helped set the scene for the March 14, 2005, two-million strong popular demonstration that essentially led to the Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon on April 26 later that year, added Suleiman.

“With the assassination of a figure as powerful as Hariri, I realized at once that major strife was being plotted against Lebanon,” he stated.

“The orders to the army were clear however and they stipulated the need to avert strife and preserve security,” he said, while also crediting the Hariri family’s call on the people to exercise restraint for ensuring that protests remained peaceful and paved the way for Lebanon to regain its sovereignty.

MP Ghazi al-Aridi: Lebanon is now in a different place

A day before Hariri’s assassination, MP and former minister Ghazi al-Aridi had visited the slain former premier’s house four times in one day. The last meeting took place at 11:45 pm.

“We were attempting to expand the opposition ranks,” explained the Democratic Gathering MP to Asharq Al-Awsat.

On Monday, the day of the assassination, he said that MPs Mohammed al-Safadi and Mosbah al-Ahdab were scheduled to have lunch with Democratic Gathering leader MP Walid Jumblat at his Beirut residence.

“I was supposed to have lunch with them as well and I informed Hariri of what were were going to discuss. He told me to meet him as soon as we were done,” continued Aridi.

When Hariri left the parliament session on that fateful day, “he told me ‘come, have lunch with me.’ I replied by reminding him of my prior engagement. He then told me to join him at his house.”

Aridi then headed to Jumblat’s residence, where he found the MP cutting newspaper articles, as is his habit, to read it later. He was informed that the lunch was canceled due to “pressure from the security agencies”.

“Before we could finish our conversation, we were surprised with a very loud explosion. Walid looked at me and I immediately told him, ‘It’s the prime minister.’ The MP sent out some of his aides and they soon returned to us with the bad news,” Aridi recalled.

“We then set out on foot to the nearby American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC). There I met the University’s security chief and childhood colleague, Saad Shalak, who took me aside and confirmed to me that it was Hariri, adding, ‘Everything is over,’” said the MP.

Thirteen years later, Aridi said that Lebanon is now “in a different place from where it was when Hariri was assassinated.”

“This is due to a miscalculation in managing the battle,” he explained. He referred to the famed opposition meeting on the night of the assassination when the gatherers failed to demand the resignation of President Lahoud.

“Many major mistakes were committed by the opposition. We need to critique what led us to where we are now and see how we can face the upcoming phase,” he stressed.

Journalist Faisal Salman: Cafe meeting preceded the explosion

The morning of February 14, 2005, was like any other Monday when Hariri would meet a few politician and journalist friends at a cafe near the parliament building. Journalist Faisal Salman was among those meeting the former PM on that last morning. He was also joined with head of Hariri’s security team Yehya al-Arab and a few other figures at the end of the parliament meeting.

Salman was seated between Hariri and late minister Bassel Fuleihan, who informed him that he had returned to Lebanon from abroad to urge Hariri to leave the country. He had received information from a British intelligence official that an assassination against Hariri was being plotted. Fuleihan had asked Salman to help him persuade Hariri to leave the country.

This sensitive issue could not however be brought up at the cafe meeting at the time because several other figures were seated with them.

Hariri, accompanied by Fuleihan, soon left the gathering and minutes later the explosion rocked the capital. Fuleihan initially survived the bombing, sustaining severe burns, but he succumbed to his injuries on April 18, 2005.

Chaos ensued at parliament square when the explosion was heard. Salman recalled seeing Hariri’s sister, MP Bahia, exit the building in a state of panic and fear that something had happened to her brother. At her request, the journalist accompanied the lawmaker to AUBMC, which was already flooded with people anxiously waiting to hear the news about the former premier.

Hariri’s personal doctor Jaber Sawaya delivered the news to Salman, who asked to see the body.

“I still remember his face as if it were yesterday. It was as if nothing was wrong with him. Only a few black spots blemished his face,” said Salman.

Thirteen years later, he stated: “Lebanon as a country with its national concepts no longer exists. The assassination of someone like Hariri, who did so much for reconstructing Lebanon, killed with it the future and hope of post-war Lebanon.”

“I lived through the war and accompanied Hariri during the majority of his career. I was a witness to his efforts and ties he forged with people. I saw for myself how some sides would confront him and put obstacles in his way to prevent him from completing his mission,” he added.

“One can sum up Hariri’s impact on Lebanon by noting that the 1988 public debt in the country was at $15 billion and now the figure is at $80 billion, not counting interest,” Salman remarked.

MP Butros Harb: The power of the explosion reflects the importance of the victim

Like other lawmakers, MP and former minister Butros Harb was present at parliament when the powerful explosion took place at around noon on February 14, 2005.

“The power of the explosion made us realize the size of the bombing. Like many of my colleagues the first victim that came to mind was Hariri given the toxic political atmosphere at the time,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“It was obvious that he was in danger due to his clash with the Syrian regime and its allies,” he explained.

Speaker Nabih Berri then adjourned the parliament session and carried out contacts with security officials and confirmed that Hariri was indeed the target.

“I had met Hariri a few month earlier in Paris and warned him” of attempts against his life, said Harb. He replied by saying that he had “international guarantees” that would protect him.

Thirteen years later, Harb voiced fears that the cause for which the former PM was assassinated for may have “gone in vain”, just like the victims of the murder.

Former minister and MP Fares Boueiz: On-air statement saved my life

The image of Boueiz making a live statement in front of the cameras before being interrupted by the sudden blast and ensuing confusion summed up the situation Lebanon found itself in on February 14, 2005.

Boueiz told Asharq Al-Awsat how divine intervention had saved him from the explosion.

“My request to speak at the parliament saved my life,” he said.

He revealed that prior to the meeting, he had turned down a lunch appointment at a restaurant located close to the blast site.

“I met Hariri by chance near the parliament building and he invited me to join him at the nearby cafe, but I declined. He then looked up at the sky and told me, ‘The electoral law is now a reality and there is no point discussing it.’ He then asked me to join him for lunch at his Qoreitem residence. He added, ‘If you come out early, then I will be at the cafe and we can go have lunch together. If you are late, then I will wait for you at the house,’” said Boueiz.

The former MP however was delayed at parliament and he could not join Hariri at the cafe. Minutes later as he was making a statement to reporters when the explosion took place.

“At that moment I stood frozen due to the massiveness of the bombing and the cameras that were fixed before me. One of the reporters soon ran up to us to inform us that an explosion had taken place in Downtown Beirut,” he continued.

“Hariri came to my mind at that moment. I immediately telephoned his house and the operator asked me if I wanted to speak to him. His response assured me because it gave me the impression that he had arrived safely,” Boueiz said.

“I then told the operator that I did not need to speak to Hariri and hung up. I recounted this incident to MP Farid Makari, whom I met by chance at parliament. He too telephoned Hariri’s house and received the same response from the operator,” he added.

Boueiz’s ease of mind did not last long. He decided to head to the blast scene to get a closer look, believing that it may have been caused by a fuel truck explosion. He failed to get far due to the heavy traffic. He decided to head to Hariri’s home where he met Salman on the way, who broke the news to him of the former PM’s assassination.

“The news had made it to Qoreitem where youths had already gathered and were chanting anti-Syria slogans. At that moment, I realized that what Salman had told me was the truth and the telephone operator had mistakenly believed that Hariri had actually arrived at his house,” he stated.

Since that day, Boueiz said that Lebanon is still suffering the repercussions of the assassination, which include a dangerous sectarian divide and strained ties between pro- and anti-Syria parties, as well a complicated ties with the Syrian regime itself.

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