Top LAF officer killed in Beirut blast

At least 3 others killed, dozens wounded when bomb goes off in Christian suburb near presidential district.

michel suleiman 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
michel suleiman 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
An early morning car bomb attack killed one of Lebanon's top military generals and at least three others as they drove through a Christian suburb of Beirut, putting even more pressure on the country's delicate political situation, the military and state media said. The military said Brig. Gen. François Hajj, head of military operations in the army command, was killed in the explosion along with several other soldiers. His name had been mentioned as a candidate to succeed army commander Michel Suleiman, if he is elected 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 as increasingly acrimonious relations between parliament's rival factions over the past several months have paralyzed the government. "This morning, the criminal hand targeted head of army operations Brig. Gen. François 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," said the statement. "The army sealed off the area and has started investigating," it added. The explosion occurred at 7:10 a.m. on a busy street near Baabda Municipality as school buses and people were setting off for work. Security officials said Hajj, who lives in the area, had left his home few minutes earlier, probably heading to the nearby Defense Ministry, when the blast detonated near his car, killing him and his bodyguard immediately. The officials said later that his driver was among those killed too. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with military rules, said the blast came from a car bomb. The blast wrecked cars and caused heavy damage in the area, which also houses foreign embassies. The explosion came as Lebanon is embroiled in its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war and amid heightened tensions between pro-government and opposition groups. The country has been without a president since Nov. 23 when Emile Lahoud left office and a deadlocked parliament failed to elect a successor. The army also crushed Islamic militants in three months of summer fighting in a northern Lebanon Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared that left hundreds dead. Hajj headed the grounded operations at the camp, which ended in September with the army defeating the Fatah Islam militants. The bombing came as pro- and anti-government groups were locked in dispute over how to elect the army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman, as compromise candidate to fill the vacant president's post. Red Cross rescuers reported two dead and seven wounded who were taken to area hospitals. Others were being treated on the spot and rescuers were searching in wrecked vehicles for more casualties, said George Kettaneh, of the rescue service at the Lebanese Red Cross. He spoke on Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV, which earlier reported that four dead and dozens were wounded in the explosion. Two bodies were thrown about 15 meters by the force of the explosion. 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. A small stun grenade exploded on the edge of the Lebanese capital late at Tuesday, causing no casualties or damage. Lebanese security officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said at least two cars were set afire and several others were damaged in the bombing outside the municipality building in the town of Baabda. The wooded, hilly Baabda is the historic capital of Mount Lebanon province, and seat of the presidential palace, which is on a nearby hill. The Defense Ministry and the army command are located in the adjacent town of Yarze. The explosion was heard by residents on the edge of the Lebanese capital. The area nearby is usually packed later in the morning with civil servants going to work at the provincial government house. 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. The explosion occurred two years to the day to a bombing that killed prominent journalist Gebran Tueni in a car bombing his supporters had blamed on Syria. Lebanon has been rocked by a series of explosion since a massive truck bombing killed former Premier Rafik Hariri in 2005 in central Beirut.