Thu, Dec 13, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Lebanese general killed in car bombing

`A KIND MAN' Slain General Francois El Hajj had been tipped to become the army's next commander if General Michel Sleiman was appointed Lebanon's new president

AFP , BEIRUT

A Lebanese army general was among at least four people killed yesterday in a car bomb that also injured seven in a Christian suburb on the outskirts of Beirut, a security source said.

"General Francois El Hajj was killed in the blast and several other people were injured, including his driver," said the source, who did not wish to be identified.

The official said Hajj was tipped to replace the army's top commander, General Michel Sleiman, who is the frontrunner to become Lebanon's next president, but whose election has been blocked by a standoff between pro and anti-Syrian camps.

"He was a great man, a kind man, who was very intelligent," the official said, referring to Hajj.

The general, who was on his way to the defense ministry when the blast took place shortly after 7am, was head of operations in the army.

He gained prominence last summer during a fierce 15-week battle between the army and an al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist group at a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

Earlier, a Lebanese Red Cross official said that four people were killed and seven wounded in the morning rush-hour blast that rocked the suburb of Baabda, southeast of Beirut.

The blast took place outside the Baabda municipal building, causing severe damage to the face of the structure and destroying several cars parked nearby.

Ambulances rushed to the site to evacuate the casualties and firefighters extinguished cars set ablaze, as police and army vehicles cordoned off the area.

Several officials said Hajj's assassination was linked to the battle at Nahr al-Bared camp.

"My first reaction is that this is linked to Nahr al-Bared," said member of parliament Butros Harb of the ruling Western-backed majority.

"I am not sure that this is not a message to the army in order to destabilize it and remove the halo around it at a time when the commander in chief has been tipped to become president," he said.

Many embassies are in Baabda, home of the presidential palace, which has been vacant since Nov. 23 when the incumbent Emile Lahoud ended his term and left as feuding politicians bickered over his successor.

Buildings within a 100m radius of the site of the explosion had their windows blown out and people rushed to the scene looking for their loved ones.

The blast came amid high tension in Lebanon, which has been rocked by a number of political assassinations in the past two years that have killed several anti-Syrian MPs and politicians.

On Tuesday a parliament session to elect the army chief as Lebanon's president was postponed for the eighth time, amid a tug-of-war between politicians and fears that a vote could be delayed until March.

The standoff between pro and anti-Syrian camps marks Lebanon's worst political crisis since the end of its 1975 to 1990 civil war and there has been fear that it could spill out into violence.

Lebanon has been without a president since Lahoud ended his term on Nov. 23.

The ruling coalition and the opposition have agreed to give the post to General Sleiman, but are bickering over how to amend the Constitution to allow for his election.

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