Killing of general rattles Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon – The assassination of a high-ranking army officer Wednesday raised fears that Lebanon could be further destabilized just as the teetering state’s two main political alliances were seeking a tenuous peace.

The killing of Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj in a car bombing here was the first major act of political violence in recent weeks as the factions have struggled to fill the nation’s vacant presidency. It was also the first time a military official fell victim in the string of assassinations targeting politicians and journalists in the past three years.

“The targeting of the military, the symbol of country’s security, is a dangerous and unprecedented development,” said Farid Khazen, a lawmaker and political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “It means that terror has no limits.”

The pro-U.S. government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the opposition, led by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia, so far have refrained from plunging into armed struggle to settle long-standing differences. However, the delay in choosing a president may have created an opportunity for militants to spark a fire.

The Bush administration condemned the attack.

“This is a crucial time as Lebanon seeks to maintain a democratically elected government and select a new president,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. “President Bush will continue to stand with the Lebanese people as they counter those who attempt to undermine their security and freedom.”

Hajj, 54, the head of army operations and a key figure in the summer fighting against Sunni Muslim militants affiliated with al-Qaida, was among the top candidates to replace army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman, the leading contender for the presidency. Hajj, a Christian, was not known to be allied with any particular faction.

The 7 a.m. bombing that killed Hajj struck Baabda, a suburb overlooking downtown Beirut, leaving nearby cars mangled and burned out. According to a security official, he was using a side street to reach his office at the nearby army’s headquarters when a 75-pound dynamite charge placed inside a green BMW exploded.


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