Lebanon bomb kills senior general

James Sturcke and agencies
Wednesday December 12, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

The man tipped to be the next head of Lebanon’s army, Brig Gen Francois Hajj, was killed today by a car bomb in a Beirut suburb.

Three others died with Hajj as they drove through a Christian suburb of the Lebanese capital in the early morning, authorities said.

Hajj, 55, a Maronite Catholic, was a potential candidate to succeed the army commander Michel Suleiman, who could be appointed president.

The blast is the first attack of its kind against the Lebanese army, which is seen as the one force that can hold the country together. Increasingly acrimonious relations between parliament’s rival factions in recent months have paralysed the government.

The Syrian-backed opposition party Hizbullah condemned the attack, saying Hajj was a “friend” of the Lebanese people, al-Jazeera television reported.

However, the telecommunications minister, Marwan Hamadeh, 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.”

Syria, in turn, blamed Israel, accusing it of targeting the Lebanese military for its “anti-Israel doctrine”. A Syrian official, quoted by the state news agency Sana, said Hajj “nurtures the resistance [Hizbullah] and has worked for a united Lebanon and rejected division”.

Suspicion also fell on Fatah militants defeated by the army following three months of fighting earlier this year. Hajj had led the operation at the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp during which 168 soldiers and about 230 Fatah al-Islam fighters were killed.

The explosion happened at 7.10am Lebanon time (5.10am GMT) on a busy street near Baabda municipality as school buses and workers were setting off.

“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 military said in a statement.

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

Security officials said Hajj, who lived in the area, had left his home a few minutes earlier and was probably heading to the nearby defence ministry when a car bomb went off near his vehicle.

The blast wrecked cars and caused heavy damage in the area, which houses foreign embassies.

Lebanon is embroiled in its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, with tensions running high between pro-government and opposition groups. The country has been without a president since November 23 when Emile Lahoud left office and a deadlocked parliament failed to elect a successor.

Hajj headed ground operations during a three-month summer offensive against militants at the northern Lebanon Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared. Hundreds were killed in the fighting, which ended in September with the army defeating Fatah militants.

The government and its supporters are locked in dispute with opposition groups over how to elect the army commander, Gen Michel Suleiman, as a compromise candidate for the presidency.

Wooded, hilly Baabda is the historic capital of Mount Lebanon province and the presidential palace is on a nearby hill. The defence ministry and the command are in the adjacent town of Yarze.

On September 19 a bomb killed the anti-Syrian politician Antoine Ghanem on a Beirut street, an attack blamed on Syria by his supporters in the governing coalition. Syria has denied involvement.

A truck bomb killed the former premier Rafik Hariri in 2005 in central Beirut.


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