Blast kills Lebanon army general

Soldier near bomb damaged vehicles

The blast damaged buildings and vehicles over a wide area


Scene of blast

The Lebanese army’s chief of operations, General Francois al-Hajj, has been killed in a bomb attack. Three other people also died in the blast in the Christian town of Baabda, close to the presidential palace, on the outskirts of the capital Beirut.

Gen Hajj had been tipped to become army chief if Gen Michel Suleiman is made president to remedy a political crisis.

Parliament has failed to elect a president and the opposition refuses to recognise the elected government.

While the pro-West ruling bloc and pro-Syrian opposition, led by Hezbollah, agree Gen Suleiman should succeed former President Emile Lahoud to break a political impasse, the factions cannot agree on the formation of a new government.

Locator map showing palace

Gen Hajj was chief of operations when Lebanon’s army fought Islamic militants from Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp earlier this year.

About 400 people, mainly militants and soldiers, died in the violence, and some 40,000 people were displaced.

The BBC’s Jim Muir at the scene of the blast says it looks like the incident was the result of a bomb and that it was a targeted attack aimed at Gen Hajj.

Security officials said Gen Hajj had left his home by car just minutes earlier, probably en route to the nearby ministry of defence.

It is believed that both he and his bodyguard were killed instantly.

The large explosion, which occurred at 0710 (0510GMT), has left the area littered with the wreckage of burned-out vehicles, our correspondent says.

High security zone

The army command issued a statement concerning the incident:

Gen Francois al-Hajj

Gen Hajj had been tipped to become head of the army

“This morning, the criminal hand targeted head of army operations Brig Gen Francois Hajj with a bomb as he drove in his car opposite Baabda municipality, which led to his death along with a number of soldiers, and wounded others.”

“The army sealed off the area and has started investigating,” it added.

A Syrian official condemned the assassination saying:

“Israel and its agents in Lebanon are the beneficiaries of this crime which cost the life of a Lebanese patriot who believed in the army, defended the resistance and worked for a united Lebanon,” the unnamed official was quoted by the state news agency Sana as saying.

The suspected bombing took place in a high security area, which is home not only to the presidential palace, but to the ministry of defence, several embassies and homes of senior politicians.

The fact that someone was able to kill such a high level army commander in an area like that suggests that they are very organised, very capable and utilising lots of intelligence, our correspondent says.

Political vacuum

There have been a number of high profile political assassinations in Lebanon in the last two years, the majority of them anti-Syrian campaigners.

LEBANESE ASSASSINATIONS

Feb 2005: Ex-PM Rafik Hariri

April 2005: MP Bassel Fleihan

June 2005: Anti-Syria journalist Samir Kassir

June 2005: Ex-Communist leader George Hawi

Dec 2005: Anti-Syria MP Gebran Tueni

Nov 2006: Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel

June 2007: Anti-Syria MP Walid Eido

Sep 2007: Anti-Syria MP Antoine Ghanim

Dec 2007: Army Gen Francois al-Hajj

In pictures: Beirut blast

Gen Hajj’s political allegiances are not known, and senior military officials have not been previously targeted.

With Lebanon in the grips of the worst political crisis since the country’s long civil war ended in 1990, our correspondent says this is exactly the kind of tension-raising incident which it is feared could trigger much wider unrest.

The pro-Syrian Mr Lahoud left office on 24 November and legislators have repeatedly failed to elect a new president.

On Monday members of parliament postponed their vote to elect a successor for an eighth time.

They are divided on the make-up of the new government.

There is also said to be a dispute over how to amend the constitution to allow a senior civil servant to be elected.

Under Article 49 of the current constitution, senior civil servants like Gen Suleiman are barred from becoming president within two years of stepping down.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7139809.stm

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