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Beirut blast kills a leading army officer and at least two deputies

December 12, 2007|Raed Rafei and Borzou Daragahi | Special to the Times

BEIRUT — A high-ranking Lebanese army officer, at least two of his companions and possibly others were killed this morning in a bombing targeting his convoy, Lebanese media reported.

Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj, head of army operations, was among the top candidates to replace Gen. Michel Suleiman, the leading contender for Lebanon's presidency, as head of the army.

The 7 a.m. blast destroyed a small bridge in Christian East Beirut, leaving cars burnt and mangled. Authorities said they continued to look for Hajj's remains but had already identified his two deputies' remains. Firefighters struggled to extinguish fires as security forces cordoned off the site, which is near the presidential palace and municipal headquarters in Beirut's Baabda district.

There was no claim of responsibility. Lebanon has been without a president since Syrian-backed Emile Lahoud left office Nov. 23. Lebanon's two main political alliances have been deadlocked over a replacement. Suleiman had emerged in recent days as a likely compromise candidate, but awaited a constitutional amendment that would allow him to move from head of the army to head of state.

The pro-U.S. March 14 alliance and the Iranian- and Syrian-backed coalition led by the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah failed to change the constitution this week. The country has been roiled by a series of assassinations of politicians and journalists who opposed Syrian influence in Lebanon, beginning with the February 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in downtown Beirut.

Lebanon's Christian community, from which the country's president is traditionally drawn, is also sharply divided, with some supporting the March 14 group headed by Sunni Muslim leader Saad Hariri, the son of the slain ex-premier; and others in Hezbollah's camp, including Christian leader Michel Aoun.

Arabic-language television reported that Hajj was close to Aoun, who was commander of the Lebanese army in the late 1980s while Hajj was an officer.

The Lebanese army fought a brutal three-month war last summer against the Sunni militant group Fatah al Islam, which left hundreds dead and the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el Bared in ruins. Hajj played a key role in that conflict.

"He showed a lot of boldness and initiative in Nahr el Bared," Wadia Khazen, a former government official, told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.

daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rafei reported from Beirut and Times staff writer Daragahi from Tehran.

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