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Lebanon's president assassinated in bomb blast

By SAHAR BAASIRI

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Newly elected President Rene Moawad was assassinated Wednesday in a massive explosion that ripped through his heavily guarded motorcade in Syrian-patrolled Moslem west Beirut.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blast, which killed 17 other people, including eight bodyguards of which three were members of Moawad's family. At least 36 people were injured.

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Police said the explosion, thought at first to have been a car bomb, was an explosive charge set in an abandoned vegetable vendor's hut alongside the street and detonated with a remote control device.

Sunni Moslem Prime Minister Selim Hoss confirmed Moawad, 64, a Maronite Christian who had been in office less than three weeks, died in the fiery blast while on his way home from a Lebanese independence ceremony at the nearby Government Palace. A witness said the president was blown to pieces in the explosion.

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'It was very ugly. The man (Moawad) was badly mutilated,' said the witness, who requested anonymity. 'He was cut into pieces. His body was pulled from his car without head and limbs.'

Moawad was elected president Nov. 5 by Lebanese lawmakers as part of an Arab League-sponsored peace agreement reached by the majority of the 73-member Lebanese parliament Oct. 23 in Taif, Saudi Arabia.

Moawad's election was bitterly opposed by military strongmen Gen. Michel Aoun, also a Maronite Christian, who denounced the action as 'illegal and invalid.'

Aoun, who commands a 15,000-strong army in a Christian enclave, on Tuesday had castigated the Taif agreement that resuled in Moawad's election as 'treason and failure.' Aoun charged that Moawad was a puppet of Syria.

The official Syrian news agency, SANA, accused Auon of masterminding the killing to torpedo the Taif accord.

'This crime comes after a series of recent death threats by Aoun against leaders who participated in the national reconciliation accord in Taif that resulted in electing Moawad,' SANA said.

Aoun's adminstration issued a statement expressing regret at the killing of 'one of Lebanon's prominent figures.'

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Amihud called it 'one more link in Lebanon's chain of tragedies' that 'illustrates the kind of neighborhood we live in, surrounded by a sea of mass violence, intolerance, religious fanaticism and endemic instability.'

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In Cairo, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry called the assassination 'a terrorist and criminal act.'

President Bush, on Air Force One en route to Memphis, said he was distressed by the assassination and offered U.S. help in bringing the killers to justice.

'It is a disgraceful, terroristic happening, if true,' Bush said. 'I think it is a direct setback to the tripartite effort of trying to bring peace to Lebanon. It is a disgraceful performance that is condemned by the United States of America. However, we must not let this brutal killing stand in the way of trying to bring to peace to the troubled corner of the world.'

Hoss, his voice breaking with sobs, said, 'With rage and anger, I mourn to the (Lebanese) people the martyr of Lebanon's unity and Arab identity.

'The criminal (assailant) can murder Moawad but he cannot assassinate the growing national faith which brought him to power,' Hoss said. 'We are all determined to follow his (Moawad's) path even if it leads to martyrdom.'

The killing of Moawad dampened hopes among many Lebanese that a political solution would be imminent.

Police said the explosives went off as Moawad's motorcade passed through the Sanayieh quarter, about 500 yards from the Government Palace, where Moawad had attended the independence day ceremony. He was en route to his residence in the seaside area of Ramlet Al Baida.

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Moawad's blue bulletproof Mercedes-Benz limousine was turned into a twisted wreck, killing Moawad instantly, officials and witnesses said.

Hoss and House Speaker Hussein Husseini, a Shiite Moslem, also attended the independence day ceremony but left the Government House in other convoys and arrived home safely.

Witnesses said Moawad's car was thrown yards away by the explosion. The vehicle was badly damaged, along with at least four other cars. Ambulances rushed to the scene as Syrian soldiers and Lebanese police imposed a tight cordon to prevent panic-stricken people from approaching the area.

Shock, panic and rage spread across the Moslem sector of the city as streets became deserted, businesses closed their doors and frightened people huddled in their houses.

Both Christian and Moslem radio stations played somber classical music in homage to Moawad's death.

Moawad's election came after the lengthy Arab League-sponsored meeting in Taif, that produced an agreement for a phased withdrawal of some 35,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon and for political reforms that give Lebanon's growing Moslem community a greater share in power on the expense of privileges enjoyed by the Christians since independence in 1943.

The accord has won the backing of both the United States and France. France had previously supported Auon but had announced that its ambassador would present credentials to Moawad this week.

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After U.S. Ambassador John McCarthy presented his credentials to the new president, Auon accused Washington of interfering in Lebanese affairs.

Aoun made the charges at a news conference held at his headquarters in the presidential palace in Baabda, which he has refused to give up.

Aoun was appointed by former Lebanese president as head of an interim Cabinet in September 1988.

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Moawad was returning to his home in the southern part of the city, torn by Moslem-Christian warfare, after attending a ceremony at the palace marking Lebanon's independence day.

Hoss and House Speaker Hussein Husseini also attended the ceremony but official sources said both left the Government House at different times and were not in the same motorcade.

Moawad, a longtime Christian politican strongly backed by Syria, was elected Nov. 5 by the Lebanese legislature in defiance of military strongman Gen. Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian who denounced the action at the time as 'illegal and invalid.' He charged that Moawad was a puppet of Syria and that his campaign against Syria's military presence in Lebanon would continue.

Moawad, a longtime Christian politican strongly backed by Syria, was elected Nov. 5 by the Lebanese legislature in defiance of military strongman Gen. Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian who denounced the action at the time as 'illegal and invalid.' He charged that Moawad was a puppet of Syria and that his campaign against Syria's military presence in Lebanon would continue.

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Aoun, who commands a 15,000-strong army in a Christian enclave, on Tuesday had castigated the agreement of the Lebanese legislators that resulted in Moawad's election as 'treason and failure.'

The accord, reached after a lengthy meeting in Taif, Saudi Arabia, won Arab and international backing. It provides for for a phased withdrawal of some 35,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon and for political reforms that give Lebanon's growing Moslem community a greater share in power on the expense of privileges enjoyed by the Christians since independence in 1943.

Auon also accused the United States of interfering in Lebanon's internal affairs and earlier Tuesday blasted U.S. Ambassador John McCarthy for presenting his credentials to the new president.

Aoun made the charges at a news conference held at his headquarters in the presidential palace in Baabda, which he has refused to give up.

Aoun was appointed by former Lebanese president as head of an interim Cabinet in September 1988.

'If we were forced to choose between submitting to the wrong concept (of freedom) and rebellion, we announce that we are rebels determined to win our freedom and independence,' Aoun said at a news conference Tuesday.

Moawad made his first formal appearance since his election on Tuesday, the eve of Lebanon's Indenendence Day commemoration, and warned there would be 'no flexibility or leniency with anyone who violates the constitution.'

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'The decision of salvation has been taken and will be implemented whatever the obstacles and sacrifices were and we will not allow the conspiracies, greeds and desires to disrupt the mechanism of the political solution and hinder the peace process,' Moawad said.

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