Top Lebanese Army Officer Killed in Bombing

A car bombing near the presidential palace in Beirut on Wednesday killed a top Lebanese army officer. The victim was widely expected to succeed army Chief of Staff Michel Suleiman, who has emerged as the consensus candidate for president after months of political deadlock.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And now to Lebanon. An assassination there today could make the ongoing political crisis even worse. Lebanon's president, Emile Lahud, ended his term two weeks ago, leaving rival factions unable to agree on his successor. And today, a car bomb exploded in a suburb of Beirut, killing a top-level army commander.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Beirut.

PETER KENYON: Residents of Baabda, in the hills just above Beirut, are used to loud noises. In the summer of 2006, Israeli war planes destroyed a bridge here during its war with the Hezbollah militia. But Baabda policeman Eli Sawaya(ph) says this morning's car bombing was much louder than that one.

Mr. ELI SAWAYA (Police Officer, Baabda District): (Through translator) We knew it was a car bomb because parts of it came across here, from the bridge to here. And it's about a hundred meters away. When you join the army here, you join to defend your country and you join to die for your country. But we don't expect people to die in this horrendous way.

KENYON: Lebanese security sources estimated that more than 75 pounds of explosives have been packed into the booby-trapped car that detonated just as the car carrying Brigadier General Francois Hajj was passing. There has been a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon, but this is the first to target an active duty senior military officer, and that has sent a chill through people here.

The army is the closest thing to a genuine national institution the country has these days. The troops are a mix of Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslims and Shiites. An army commander, Michel Suleiman, has been credited with keeping the army politically neutral and working to keep the peace among the country's fractious parties.

General Suleiman is also widely expected to become Lebanon's next president. And until today, Francois Hajj was a leading candidate to take over the army when that happened.

(Soundbite of people talking)

KENYON: Baabda resident Arlene Algur(ph) wanders amid the broken glass in front of her apartment. She's still wearing her pink pajamas, and in her shock and grief, she seems to reflect the frustration of a populace that has been waiting in vain for its leaders to solve their problems and get on with running the country.

Ms. ARLENE ALGUR (Resident, Baabda District): (Through translator) Death is better. You don't feel anything. They want to rule the country, so they destroy it. Let them destroy it. Then they can rule stones. Great. Let them. I'll be the first one to leave the country. We're all going to be in mental homes. Then they can rule, empty houses and crazy people.

KENYON: Analysts say they can't rule out the possibility that Islamist militants had a hand in today's attack because Hajj was a leader in the army operation against militants in a Palestinian refugee camp this summer. But many took the killing as a blow against the army itself and a warning that Lebanon's fragile peace could be toppled at any moment.

Some analysts noted that Hajj doesn't fit the profile of the Lebanese politicians slain in the past two years, in that he's not an outspoken critic of Syria or Iran. He was known to be close to Michel Aoun, a leading Christian opposition figure. Aoun said the country had lost a good soldier and a good man.

General MICHEL AOUN (Leader, Free Patriotic Movement): (Through translator) He was brave on the battlefield. He was wise in all the decisions he took. There's no doubt that we are overwhelmed by grief, but we will stand to continue the march.

KENYON: Pro-government lawmaker Amin Gemayel said the assassination makes it more urgent than ever for Lebanon to unite, elect a president and begin rebuilding its institutions. But there was little doubt that the killing had deepened suspicions on all sides and thrown into further doubt Monday's planned vote on a new president.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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Beirut Car Bomb Kills Top Lebanese General

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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