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Lebanon Car Bombing Kills General, Others

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Lebanon Car Bombing Kills General, Others

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Lebanon Car Bombing Kills General, Others

Lebanon Car Bombing Kills General, Others

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A car bomb attack kills Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj, and at least two others. The target of the attack, Hajj, a top Maronite Catholic in the command, was considered a leading candidate to succeed the head of the military, Gen. Michel Suleiman, if Suleiman is elected president.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Another bombing in Lebanon may have serious political implications. A bomb just outside Beirut killed a top military officer and at least three other people. Dozens more were wounded. The blast comes as Lebanon faces its worst political crisis since the end of that country's long civil war back in 1990. It's been without a head of state for three weeks. Yesterday, a vote in parliament on a new president was postponed again for the eighth time.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has just returned from the scene of today's bombing, and joins us from Beirut.

Hello.

PETER KENYON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us what you can about that explosion.

KENYON: Well, the Christian suburb of Baabda is probably best known as the home to the presidential palace, which is, of course, without a president at the moment. The explosion happened in a mixed residential and commercial area during the morning rush hour. I spoke with a local police officer. He said he saw pieces of what he believes to have been a car bomb came sailing more than a hundred yards across the bridge, to land near the police station. Other witnesses and the Lebanese army confirmed that the head of military operations, a general named Francois Hajj, was driving past at the moment of the blast. He was killed with several others, and several more people were wounded.

I saw glass shattered hundreds of yards in all directions, as often happens with large bombs. A lot of the residents - some of them still in their pajamas - were clearly in shock. They still had blood on their hands from where their windows had blown in on them. They really were just wandering around trying to make some sense of what happened.

MONTAGNE: Now, there have been several assassinations over the last two years of Lebanese politicians and public figures who were outspokenly against Syria, which effectively controlled Lebanon for many years. What are people saying about why this particular general may have been targeted?

KENYON: Well, this is something new. It's the first time the army has been hit in this way. And at the moment, as you can imagine, there are more questions than answers. And nearly everyone I spoke with this morning in Baabda - General Hajj's neighbors and friends - was convinced that he was a leading candidate to become the next head of the army if the current head, General Michel Suleiman, becomes the next president, as is widely expected.

Now, why that would make General Hajj a target for assassination isn't exactly clear. Hajj was known as a respected military man. He played a major role in the battle this summer against Islamist militants in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. Some acquaintances say he was also considered to be on good terms with former Army Commander Michel Aoun, who is today a leading opposition figure.

In general, the Lebanese army is considered politically neutral. It's perhaps the only truly national institution Lebanon has today. So if the army is now becoming a target in this string of attacks that has plagued the country, that's very disturbing to people here.

MONTAGNE: So bad news for a country that already has been politically paralyzed for this past year.

KENYON: Very bad news. And it's not clear what impact this will have on that paralysis, but it's very unlikely to make things any easier. As you mentioned, the parliamentary vote was postponed yet again yesterday. It's now scheduled for next Monday. We will see if that schedule still holds in the face of this violence.

The Western-backed majority and the Syrian-and-Iranian-supported opposition are continuing to argue over a series of political issues, although both sides say that they've agreed in principle to General Suleiman as the next president. But, apparently, there are so many other issues still to be argued about that it's not clear when this will be finish. So, at the moment, it just seems that this violence is making things more anxious and more uncertain.

MONTAGNE: Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Beirut, where a car bomb has killed a senior Lebanese military commander.

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Beirut Car Bomb Kills Top Lebanese General

Renee Montagne and Peter Kenyon discuss the car bombing that killed Lebanese Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj on Morning Edition

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A car bomb exploded in Beirut on Wednesday, killing a top Lebanese general who was a leading candidate to become head of the army.

Two others were also killed in the attack on Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj, a top Maronite Catholic in the command, military officials and media reports said. Hajj, 55, was a leading candidate to succeed Gen. Michel Suleiman as army chief, if Suleiman is elected president.

The blast is the first such attack against the Lebanese army, which has remained neutral in Lebanon's yearlong political crisis and is widely seen as the only force that can hold the country together amid bitter infighting between parliament's rival factions.

The political divisions have paralyzed the government and prevented the election of a president, leaving the post empty since Nov. 23. Under Lebanon's sectarian division of political posts, the president must be a Maronite, like the army commander.

The bomb exploded as Hajj drove through a busy street in the Baabda District. The timing amid the deadlock over the presidency raised immediate speculation over who was behind the attack.

Anti-Syrian politicians blamed Damascus, as they have for a string of bombings over the past two years that killed eight prominent opponents of Syria. Damascus has denied any role in those killings.

Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, speaking to AP Television News, accused the "Syrian-Iranian axis" of hitting the military, "the only body in Lebanon who can balance the power of Hezbollah and other militias in the country."

But Hezbollah, which has good relations with the army, denounced the assassination. It called Hajj's death a "great national loss" and praised the military's "great national role" in preserving security.

France, which ruled Lebanon for 20 years after World War I and has been mediating the political crisis, denounced the attack, as did the European Union.

The main Christian opposition leader, Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, told reporters that he had supported Hajj to succeed Suleiman as army commander. Aoun, a former head of the military, praised Hajj and said it was "shameful" for political forces to take advantage of the crime, a reference to the anti-Syrian groups.

Suspicion also fell on al-Qaida-inspired Sunni militants, whom the army crushed last summer at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon. Hajj led the battle, which killed hundreds.

Hikmat Deeb, a leading member of Aoun's opposition Free Patriotic Movement, said Hajj was "a hero of Nahr el-Bared," suggesting the battle there was a factor in the assassination.

The military refrained from laying blame, saying in a statement that "the criminal hand" killed Hajj, along with "a number of soldiers, and wounded others." It said the military was investigating.

The blast went off at 7:10 a.m. on a busy street near the Baabda Municipality building as residents were setting off for work. Hajj, who lives in the area, had left his home a few minutes earlier, probably for the nearby Defense Ministry, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with military rules.

A parked car packed with 77 pounds of TNT exploded, apparently triggered by remote control, as his SUV passed, blasting a crater two yards wide and a yard deep.

Two bodies were thrown about 15 yards by the blast. Troops sealed off the area as firefighters tried to put out the flames. The road was blackened with soot as smoke covered the area.

The security officials said three people were confirmed dead, including the general, his driver and bodyguard. Emergency workers were searching in nearby bushes for a possible fourth body.

Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, said the attack came at a "pivotal time at which Lebanon's enemies are seeking to consecrate the vacuum in the presidency."

The failure to elect a president has embroiled Lebanon in its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. The country has been without a president since Nov. 23, when Emile Lahoud left office and a deadlocked parliament failed to elect a successor.

Parliament is sharply divided between anti-Syrian supporters of the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the opposition, led by Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran.

The two sides are locked in a dispute over electing the army commander, Suleiman, as a compromise candidate to fill the vacant presidency. His election requires a constitutional amendment because sitting army commanders are barred from the post.

Lebanon has been rocked by a series of explosions since a massive truck bombing killed former Premier Rafik Hariri in central Beirut in 2005.

The last major explosion on Sept. 19 killed anti-Syrian lawmaker Antoine Ghanem on a Beirut street, an attack blamed by his supporters in the government coalition on Syria. Syria denied involvement.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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