12 December 2007

Car explosion kills General Hajj and 3 others

Beirut - A car bomb attack killed Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj and at least three others Wednesday, the military and state media said, putting even more pressure on the country's delicate political situation.

On Wednesday a car bomb killed him and several bodyguards. (Security sources said five people were killed and several wounded by the car bomb that exploded as Hajj’s convoy drove through Baddbda, a suburb that houses the presidential palace and several embassies



Hajj, one of Lebanon's top military generals and a top Maronite Catholic in the command, was considered a leading candidate to succeed the head of the military, Gen. Michel Suleiman, after Suleiman's is elected as the new president to replace Emile Lahoud , whose term expired on November 23.

Hajj, 55, was hailed as the hero of the military campaign against the terrorists of Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp.




The slaying of 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.

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 Associated Press 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 the Shiite Muslim 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.

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 Muslim militants, whom the army crushed at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon in an operation led by Hajj, a battle that cost hundreds of lives.






Hikmat Deeb, a leading member of Aoun's opposition Free Patriotic Movement, said Hajj ( pictured speaking ) 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. (12:10 a.m. EST) on a busy street near the Baabda Municipality building as school buses and people were setting off for work. Hajj, who lives in the area, had left his home few minutes earlier, probably heading to the nearby Defense Ministry, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with military rules.

A BMW parked car packed with 77 pounds ( 35 Kg) of TNT exploded as his SUV passed, knocking a crater two yards wide and a yard deep into the pavement.

Two bodies were thrown about 15 yards by the force of the blast. Troops sealed off the area as firefighters tried to put out the flames in at least two cars. The road was blacked with the soot as black 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 how to elect the army commander, Suleiman, as compromise candidate to fill the vacant presidency. His election requires a constitutional amendment because currently a sitting army commander is barred from the post.

Lebanon has been rocked by a series of explosion 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.



French FM denounces the killing
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner denounced the killing as a "cowardly" attempt to destabilize the country.

"France condemns in the strongest terms the attack that claimed the life of a senior Lebanese army official, Francois El-Hajj, as well as several Lebanese citizens," the minister said in a statement.



"This cowardly act, committed against one of the chief figures of the Lebanese military... is part of an obvious attempt to destabilize" Lebanon.

Kouchner said the "only response" should be to "elect without delay a new president" and keep the country functioning to "ensure its security, liberty and sovereignty."

He urged the "entire international community to exercise the greatest possible influence" to help the country do so.

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.