(photo credit: AP)
The government and the opposition united in mourning, while schools and businesses closed Friday as Lebanese people and the military staged a momentous farewell to a top general slain in a car bombing two days ago.
In pouring rain, the casket of Maj. Gen. Francois Hajj was taken from the military hospital to his house in suburban Baabda, minutes away from where a car bomb incinerated his vehicle Wednesday, killing him and his driver.
An army honor guard played somber music as the flag-draped coffin was brought to the Maronite Catholic basilica in the Christian mountain heartland north of Beirut for an official service. The casket was to be later driven halfway across the country for burial in Hajj's southern hometown of Rmeish, near the border with Israel.
Church bells tolled and hundreds of grieving Lebanese lined up along the procession route, with roads adorned with the Lebanese red-and-white flag with the green Cedar tree. An elderly woman threw rose petals as the convoy drove through the port city of Jounieh.
"Their bloody message will not scare us," read a roadside banner.
Pallbearers from various army units carried the coffin into the church, where mourners applauded and threw rose petals as a choir sang hymns.
Army chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, saluted before the coffin, and Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, Patriarch of the Maronite Church, led the funeral mass. The service was attended by pro-government and opposition politicians, Christian and Muslim. The opposition Hizbullah sent a delegation.
The mass was also attended by Maj. -Gen. Claudio Graziano, Italian commander of UN forces in southern Lebanon. Graziano, who lost six of his peacekeepers in a June car bombing, said he was "deeply sorry for the loss of a great soldier and a personal friend."
A bishop read a message from Pope Benedict XVI, blessing Hajj and offering condolences. The Pope condemned the "unjustified violence" and called on Lebanese politicians to reconcile.
Away from the shock and tears, an investigation into Hajj's assassination continued.
In the southern city of Sidon, security agents detained Wednesday four Lebanese in whose names the car used in the bombing was registered, a security official said.
Authorities were also looking into the possible involvement of al-Qaida-inspired Sunni Muslim extremists seeking vengeance against Hajj, who had led a major offensive against Islamic militants last summer.
He was credited with crushing al-Qaida-inspired fighters known as Fatah Islam who had barricaded themselves in a northern Palestinian refugee camp, Nahr el-Bared, to battle the military from there for three months. Hundreds of militants, as well as 168 soldiers, were killed in the fighting, which ended in September. The leader of Fatah Islam escaped the siege.
Defense Minister Elias Murr, speaking on Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television late Thursday, said he would not limit the suspects to just "criminal terrorists" - Lebanese shorthand for militants. Murr, who survived a similar car bombing with severe injuries in 2005, said there "were serious and advanced leads this time, much more than in the other crimes," but gave no details.
Hajj's slaying came as Lebanon is embroiled in the latest chapter of its yearlong crisis - a dispute over electing a new president. The post has been left empty since Emile Lahoud's term ended Nov. 23, with supporters of the Western-backed government and the opposition, led by pro-Syrian Hizbullah, unable to agree on a successor.
The beleaguered government sought to reassure the public, many of whom were worried that even the military - seen as the sole institution holding the country together - was now a target in Lebanon's unending political turmoil.
US President George W. Bush condemned the assassination and took a tough tone against Syria, calling on it to stop interference in Lebanon - although he did not accuse Damascus in the slaying.
Suleiman, the army commander, has emerged as a consensus candidate to become the next president, though his election has been held up by political wrangling in parliament. Hajj was a front-runner to succeed Suleiman as head of army.
Some anti-Syrian politicians on Wednesday accused Damascus of being behind the bombing to try to torpedo the presidential election. But on Thursday they muted their rhetoric after Suleiman called on Lebanon's divided factions to avoid "politicizing" Hajj's death.
Security officials said there was a strong possibility that Islamic extremists or dormant Fatah Islam cells carried out the attack.
Hajj's assassination in the high-security Baabda area where the Defense Ministry and the presidential palace are located underlined fears among many Lebanese that no place or person is immune from the violence that has wracked the country since 2005.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who has asked the United Nations for assistance in resolving Hajj's slaying, has vowed the latest bombing "will only make Lebanon, the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army more determined to stand in the face of strife."
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