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Hariri witness tells of traumatic search for missing father

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Leidschendam (Netherlands) (AFP)

The daughter of a bystander who lost his life in the massive suicide car bombing that killed former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri spoke Monday of her family's harrowing search to find her father's body.

Lama Ghalayini, 39, is the first victim to testify before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a UN-backed tribunal set up to prosecute those who murdered Hariri and 21 other people in the February 14, 2005 attack on Beirut's busy seafront.

Lebanese businessman Abdel-Hamid Ghalayini's body was found more than two weeks after the blast, only when his family insisted on rescue workers digging at a spot at the scene "where flies could be seen and where the smell was bad", she said.

"We saw the feet first and then his phone and we were sure it was my father," Ghalayini told judges, speaking via video link from the Lebanese capital.

"When the sand was removed from his body... I was angry, I was revolted... it was extremely difficult," she added.

Abdel-Hamid Ghalayini was reported missing after news emerged of the bomb blast -- blamed on five suspected members of the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah.

Monday's hearing marks the first time victims were allowed to speak in the long-running trial which started in 2014 against the five suspects indicted by the court, based just outside The Hague.

- 'Completely lost' -

"We were completely lost, we were in a state of distress and we needed to know exactly what the situation was," Ghalayini told the five-judge bench.

Looking for their relatives, the family was confronted with scenes of carnage at the blast site.

Ghalayini said they received no help from the authorities in their quest to find her father, a businessman and an amateur pilot.

At the scene "I found body parts. There were also pieces of metal and stones. It was complete chaos," she said.

The family was so desperate that they even hired their own sniffer dogs but to no avail.

- 'Vaporised' -

Her father's body was eventually found 17 days later buried beneath the rubble, when Ghalayini's uncle insisted that officials dig at a spot that had previously not been searched.

His daughter said 12 years after the traumatic event she was still angered how authorities treated her family, initially telling them her father had been "vaporised."

"My father died in a horrible way, a criminal way. But the most difficult part were the 17 days (after the blast), which I consider as a second crime committed against him," she said.

Further victims are to testify this week including two bank employees who survived the blast and the brother of another victim who died.

- Act of terror -

Four suspects, Salim Ayyash, Hussein Oneissi, Assad Sabra and Hassan Habib Merhi are being tried in absentia.

The STL has quashed the case against the fifth suspect, Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who is believed to have died in fighting in Syria in May last year.

The STL opened its doors in 2009 and is the only international ad-hoc tribunal with the jurisdiction to try an act of terror.

Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah has previously dismissed the tribunal as a US-Israeli plot and vowed none of the defendants will ever be caught.

Hariri, Lebanon's Sunni Muslim prime minister until his resignation in October 2004, was on his way home for lunch when a suicide bomber detonated a van full of explosives equivalent to 2.5 tonnes of TNT as his armoured convoy passed.

The backlash against his killing led Syria to withdraw its troops from the country, ending a presence that lasted nearly 30 years.

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