Army investigators on Thursday looked into the possible involvement of al-Qaida-inspired extremists in the bombing that killed a Lebanese general who had led a major offensive against Islamic militants.
The beleaguered government sought to reassure the public, where many 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.
Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj, chief of the military’s operations, and his driver were killed as he left his home for work Wednesday, when a parked car bomb exploded in Baabda, a Christian suburb east of Beirut.
Four Lebanese who were believed connected to the car used in the blast were being questioned, security officials said.
Hajj led a three-month military campaign that crushed an al-Qaida-inspired militant group known as Fatah Islam in Nahr el-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. That raised suspicion the assassination may have been an act of revenge.
Bush warns Syria about ‘interference’
His 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 Hezbollah, unable to agree on a successor.
President 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.
Bush said Hajj was “a supporter of Lebanon’s independence and an opponent of Syria’s interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.”
“As Lebanon seeks to select a president democratically and in accordance with its constitution, interference by the Syrian regime and its allies, aimed at intimidating the Lebanese people, must end,” he said.
Damascus condemns attack
Hajj was not known as an anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon. He was an ally of anti-Syrian Gen. Michel Aoun in the late 1980s. But in the next two decades, Hajj rose steadily into the top echelons of the military at a time when Syria controlled Lebanon, which he would not have been able to do without being on good terms with Damascus.
Army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman 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 the military.
Some anti-Syrian politicians on Wednesday accused Damascus of being behind the bombing to try to torpedo the choosing of a president. But on Thursday they muted their rhetoric after Suleiman called on Lebanon’s divided factions to avoid “politicizing” Hajj’s death.
Syria’s foreign minister condemned the bombing.
Security officials said there was a strong possibility that Islamic extremists or dormant Fatah Islam cells carried out the attack.
Another possibility is that Hajj was targeted because he was considered a leading candidate to become army chief, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
4 detained for questioning
In the southern city of Sidon, security agents detained four Lebanese in whose names the car used in the bombing was registered, a security official said.
The four were picked up from Taamir neighborhood on the edge of the Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, where Islamic militant groups are known to operate. During the Nahr el-Bared fighting, Palestinian militants in Ein el-Hilweh camp threatened to form “Jihadi groups” to fight alongside Fatah Islam.
The four are not yet suspects in the bombing and were being questioned about their connection to the car, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.
The battle at Nahr el-Bared, which ended in September, killed hundreds of militants, as well as 168 soldiers. The leader of Fatah Islam escaped the siege.
PM strikes defiant tone
Wednesday’s bombing — killing a top officer 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 wracking Lebanon since 2005.
“This crime committed yesterday will only make Lebanon, the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army more determined to stand in the face of strife and seriously work to hold the presidential election,” Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said.
Saniora has asked the United Nations to help investigate the attack. The prime minister requested technical assistance in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said Thursday. Ban transmitted the letter to the Security Council, which must authorize the request, she said.
U.N. investigators probing the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri already are assisting the Lebanese government with its investigations of 18 other assassinations and bombings.
About 500 people marched to the scene of the blast for a candlelight vigil, holding pictures of Hajj and saying prayers.
“Of course, we have to be afraid now,” said Rima Kamar, in her late 20s, who joined the march. “They are targeting the military.”
But Degaulle Fayad, 62, insisted that the military “will always protect us. ... Yes, they were targeted yesterday, but they will remain strong and we depend on them.”