BEIRUT, Feb. 14 -- Former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed Monday when a powerful car bomb exploded on Beirut's fashionable waterfront, evoking the political violence that plagued Lebanon during its long civil war.
In the aftermath of the blast, which killed 13 people besides Hariri and filled hospitals with scores of wounded, including the economy minister, opposition leaders and angry demonstrators gathered in front of Hariri's downtown mansion, blaming Syria for the most serious political assassination in Lebanon since sectarian fighting ended nearly 16 years ago. Hariri had emerged in recent months as a chief opponent of the presence of Syrian troops in the country.
Vehicles burn following the massive bomb attack that tore through the motorcade of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut. Hariri resigned last year after a dispute with Syria, whom opposition figures saw behind the attack.
Photo Gallery: Blast in Beirut killed Lebanon's former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and at least nine others.
Video: Scene from downtown Beirut immediately following the blast.
Video: Leaders from around the region react to the death of Hariri.
The bomb exploded just before lunchtime as the former prime minister's motorcade reached a busy curve along this seaside capital's elegant Corniche. It left a clutter of smoldering sport-utility vehicles and sedans in a crater six feet deep, with flames flickering for hours. The explosion sheared off the facades of some of Beirut's most luxurious hotels, shattering glass within a quarter-mile radius.
A Palestinian militant asserted responsibility for the bombing in a video aired on al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network. The man said that he represented a previously unheard-of organization and that he had carried out the bombing because of Hariri's financial dealings with the ruling family of Saudi Arabia.
Hariri's political supporters said they believed Syria was involved in the attack.
At a tearful meeting Monday night at Hariri's home, Lebanon's opposition leaders blamed Syria and its allies in the Lebanese security forces for Hariri's death and called for an immediate withdrawal of Syrian soldiers from the country. They also demanded that Lebanon's government resign and called a three-day strike to protest the killing.
"The Lebanese state and Syria are responsible," Bassam Sabah, a member of the opposition bloc in parliament, said at a news conference afterward. "The opposition will not stop asking for freedom."
The Syrian government, which President Bush accused in his State of the Union address of harboring terrorists, vehemently denied the charges. Mehdi Dakhlallah, Syria's information minister, condemned the assassination as "a terrorist act."
Lebanese government officials linked Hariri's killing to mounting international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and to end its sponsorship of Hezbollah, an armed Shiite Muslim political movement that operates in the south.
"We believe the targeting of Hariri is the targeting of Lebanon as a whole," Elie Ferzli, Lebanon's information minister, said in an interview with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. "The whole region is on fire, and now the fire is among us."
In Washington, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said the Bush administration would consult with the region's governments in coming days.
"It's premature to know who was responsible for this attack, but we continue to be concerned about the foreign occupation in Lebanon," McClellan said. "We've expressed those concerns. Syria has maintained a military presence there for some time now, and that is a concern of ours."
Hariri, 60, was a self-made billionaire who spearheaded the renovation of Beirut's war-battered downtown. His assassination comes as Lebanon prepares for parliamentary elections, scheduled to begin as early as April, that could usher in a government more strongly opposed to Syria's decisive influence in Lebanese political affairs. Syria maintains an estimated 15,000 troops in bases on the outskirts of Beirut and in the eastern Bekaa Valley.
A Sunni Muslim, Hariri resigned as prime minister in October, after holding the office for all but about five years of the country's postwar reconstruction era. He was seen as a reassuring figure by international investors and lenders, and over that time Lebanon's economy surged on a wave of tourism and construction. But the country remains hampered by huge debt and official corruption that has ravaged its public services.