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On The Scene

Sadler: Worst scenes since civil war

'Dark days of civil war terror' revisited

CNN's Brent Sadler
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Blast kills former PM Rafik Hariri. CNN's Brent Sadler reports. (February 14)
Can Rafik Hariri's vision of a prosperous Lebanon be achieved after his death?
On the Scene
Brent Sadler

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has been killed in a huge explosion in Beirut, with several others killed as a result of the blast, with several more injured.

CNN correspondent Brent Sadler was near the scene when it happened and told CNN anchor Monita Rajpal: "I haven't seen anything on this scale in Beirut since the dark days of the civil war."

MONITA RAJPAL: Was there any warning, any speculation, any fears or concerns that there could be a terrorist attack?

BRENT SADLER: There have been concerns raised in various quarters. Let me just set the scene for you, Monita. The Lebanese are in the throes of a fierce political battle over Syria's involvement in Lebanese political and military affairs. There's a lot of international pressure on Syria right now to stop meddling in Lebanon's affairs. Lebanon today has a very staunchly pro-Syrian Lebanese government. There is an emerging opposition front, the kind of opposition uniting, that we haven't seen in Lebanon in recent history. Really coming up against what they see as Syria's control and domination of this country.

A few weeks ago there was an assassination attempt against a leading opposition figure who survived the attempt on his life. There have been many concerns in some quarters here that the political conflict might somehow go off into violence. Now, that's jumping from one conclusion to another. There's no evidence or confirmation that these are linked.

This explosion is set against a a background of what people here have been concerned about -- openly concerned about -- and what the U.S. administration has also been concerned about. Making it clear to all parties involved in the political tug of war that there are red lines in terms of acts of violence against anybody who is involved in the political arena here. But certainly now we first have to await preliminary investigations into what's caused this blast.

But on the surface of it, the Lebanese are looking at this with a very concerned attitude indeed, not least for the casualties. We have to wait for what the casualty details are but certainly the Lebanese will be very concerned about just what is behind the explosion, whether it's linked to political conflict right now or whether it's something else terror-related.

There have been allegations that there are al Qaeda extremist supporters that operate in Lebanon, in the Palestinian refugee camps, particularly. There is certainly the potential, has always been the potential, for terror to reappear in Lebanon. Obviously the government is at pains to stress that Lebanon in a secure country, Beirut a secure city, after its own 15-year civil war, which ended in 1991. And for Lebanon to go back to those dark days of terror of the 1980s, if this is the case it will certainly cause a lot of anxiety -- not just here in Lebanon, but throughout this region.

RAJPAL: Brent, set the scene for us in the location and the time of the blast. Because it would have been midday, early afternoon. How busy would it have been?

SADLER: As you say, it happened early afternoon and this is a main route, one that I use every single day of my life, back and forwards to the bureau and to the city. This route is the only way you can get from one part of the city to another. It is a crème de la crème area of Beirut, it is just on the fringe of the commercial central district of the city that has been rebuilt since the civil war came to an end.

And as I say, we must repeat, we still do not the cause of this blast but it has been a very, very powerful explosion. I've been through many explosions in my life and this rates as a very strong one and what I am seeing in terms of collateral damage, a lot of damage to a five-star hotel, the Continental Hotel, right next door to the blast. I'm speaking in the lobby here with glass all around me, fallen masonry, dust all around me, the hotel evacuated, the staff on the street and hundreds -- if not thousands -- of Lebanese, running in various directions.

In terms of why former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was possibly targeted. He was one of the main proponents of a change in Lebanon's relationship with the Syrians, the next-door powerhouse, which really has a lot of influence in Lebanon's political affairs.

The Syrians say they were invited there by Lebanon to help pacify the country in the mid-1970s and since then there has been a lot of political pressure mounting internationally, very recently on Syria, to withdraw its troops, seen by many Lebanese as occupation troops.

And there's been a real vicious, in terms of the rhetoric, tug of war between government supporters -- those tied with Syria very closely and those opposed to Syria.

Syria says its presence here is a guarantee of security and to weaken the relationship between Syria, the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the Lebanese government, headed by Omar Karameh and President Emile Lahoud. To weaken that relationship is to invite the kind of instability, the kind of violent attack, if this was a car bomb attack that we're seeing here today, that has always been Syria's position. Move Syria away from Lebanon and there will be trouble.

Now, the opposition are saying that's not the case. Syria needs to go, it's done its job. It helped pacify this country. There should be an important strategic relationship between the two nations but that Lebanon should be more democratic.

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