Hezbollah denounces killing of Lebanese general

December 13, 2007 - 0:0

BEIRUT (Reuters) -- A car bomb killed a Lebanese army general in a Christian suburb of Beirut on Wednesday, removing a leading contender to replace military chief General Michel Suleiman, who is set to be elected president next week.

Lebanese politicians from the Western-backed ruling coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition denounced the attack, as did the United States, France, Germany and Syria.
Hezbollah, which has good relations with the army, denounced the killing. It called Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj’s death a “great national loss” and praised the military’s “great national role” in preserving security.
The slaying of General Hajj and its timing amid the deadlock over the presidency raised immediate speculation over who was behind the bombing, which blasted Hajj’s SUV as he drove through a busy street of Baabda district.
The attack heightened tension in Lebanon where rival leaders are embroiled in a struggle over the presidency that has fuelled the biggest political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
General Francois al-Hajj, head of army operations, and his bodyguard were killed in the early morning blast that hit their car in Baabda, a wealthy area that houses the presidential palace and several embassies.
Hajj was the ninth fatality in a string of assassinations that began with the 2005 killing of ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri.
Security sources said 35 kg (77 lb) of explosives packed into an olive-green BMW car were detonated by remote control as Hajj’s four-wheel-drive vehicle drove by.
Hajj, 54, had been seen as one of two main contenders for the job of army chief, traditionally a Maronite Christian. The post would fall vacant if parliament elects Suleiman president in a long-delayed vote now slated for Monday.
Political and religious leaders said the killing showed the need to reduce tensions by electing Suleiman swiftly.
No group claimed responsibility for Hajj’s killing.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem denounced the “criminal attack” on Hajj, saying: “We condemn any action that threatens Lebanon.”
Hajj helped lead an army onslaught on al-Qaeda-inspired militants at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon earlier this year in which 168 soldiers and about 230 Fatah al-Islam fighters were killed.
“Once he was nominated for the leadership (of the army), they killed him,” Hajj’s father Elias told reporters in the slain officer’s village of Rmeish in southern Lebanon.
Villagers raised black flags and army emblems in Rmeish, where schools closed for three days of mourning. Hajj came from a family of tobacco farmers and was the eldest of 12 children.
The blast wrecked Hajj’s car, set others on fire and damaged nearby buildings. Charred metal littered the blackened streets.
“We are facing a security catastrophe today,” said Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, calling on the interior minister to resign. Visibly shaken, the former army chief told reporters Hajj had been his preferred candidate for the top military post.
The army has stayed largely neutral in Lebanon’s political turmoil and is seen as a unifying force.
On Monday, Lebanon’s parliament speaker postponed the presidential election to December 17, the eighth delay to the vote