BEIRUT (AFP) – A top Lebanese army officer and his bodyguard were killed on Wednesday in a powerful car bomb that further destabilised the country as it grapples with a deep political crisis and presidential void.
An army spokesman told AFP that Brigadier General Francois El-Hajj, head of military operations, was killed in the blast along with his bodyguard as their car drove past the Baabda municipality during the morning rush-hour.
The Red Cross said eight people were wounded in the blast, none of them seriously.
The attack was the first of its kind against the Lebanese military, seen as a unifying force in a country mired in its worst political crisis since the end of a 1975-1990 civil war.
Several officials said Hajj, 54, was targeted as he was tipped to replace as army chief General Michel Sleiman, the frontrunner to become Lebanon’s next president but whose election has been blocked by a standoff between pro- and anti-Syrian camps.
Lebanon has been without a president since November 23 when incumbent Emile Lahoud ended his term with rival parties unable to agree on a successor.
An army spokesman said that Wednesday’s blast took place during the morning rush hour at 7:10 am (0500 GMT), as Hajj was heading to the defence ministry nearby.
The general’s body and that of his bodyguard were thrown into a nearby ravine by the force of the explosion, which blew out the windows of nearby buildings and left several cars burning.
“Let me through, let me through, I want to find my father,” one woman cried out as police kept her at bay.
Hajj 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.
Several officials said his assassination was linked to the current crisis over the presidency and perhaps the battle at Nahr al-Bared camp.
“My first reaction is that this is linked to Nahr al-Bared, that it is a revenge attack,” said Butros Harb, an MP with the ruling Western-backed majority.
“But I am not sure that this is not also a message to the army in order to destabilise it and remove the halo around it at a time when the commander in chief has been tipped to become president,” he added.
Officials from the various political parties and several countries immediately denounced the killing.
“This cowardly act, committed against one of the chief figures of the Lebanese military… is part of an obvious attempt to destabilise Lebanon,” said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country has spearheaded efforts to end the impasse over the presidency.
Kouchner said the “only response” should be to “elect without delay a new president” and keep the country functioning to “ensure its security, liberty and sovereignty.”
Syria, which has been implicated in a number of political assassinations in Lebanon but denies involvement, also condemned the attack and pointed a finger at Israel.
“Israel and its agents in Lebanon are the beneficiaries of this crime which cost the life of a Lebanese patriot who believed in the army, defended the resistance and worked for a united Lebanon,” said a Syrian official.
Lebanon’s deputy parliament speaker Farid Makari, an MP with the ruling majority, said Hajj’s killing was directly linked to the ongoing standoff over the presidency.
“This is a criminal, terrorist act linked to the ruling majority’s endorsement of army chief Michel Sleiman for the presidency,” Makari said.
On Tuesday a parliament session to elect Sleiman president was postponed for the eighth time, amid a tug-of-war between politicians over how to amend the constitution to allow him to take up the post.
Rival parties have also been at loggerheads over the make-up of the new cabinet and who would be appointed to sensitive top security posts, including that of army chief.
The political standoff has prompted fears of total chaos in a country which has been rocked by a string of political assassinations that have killed eight anti-Syrian MPs and politicians over the past three years.
One of the slain MPs, Gibran Tueni, died in a car bomb attack exactly two years ago, on December 12, 2005.
The attacks began with the February 2005 killing of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.