BEIRUT (Reuters) - A car bomb killed a Lebanese army general in a Christian suburb of Beirut on Wednesday, removing a leading contender to replace military chief General Michel Suleiman who is set to be elected president next week.
The attack heightened tension in Lebanon where rivals are embroiled in a struggle over the presidency that has fuelled the biggest political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj, head of army operations, and his bodyguard were killed in the early morning blast that hit their car in Baabda, a wealthy area that houses the presidential palace and several embassies.
Hajj was the ninth fatality in a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists that began with the 2005 killing of ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri.
Politicians from the Western-backed ruling coalition and Hezbollah-led opposition denounced the attack, as did the United States, United Nations, France, Germany, Syria and Iran.
The United States, which cast suspicion on Syria for being behind some earlier assassinations, took a more cautious line this time. “I’m not going to be pointing fingers at anybody today,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.
Lebanese security sources said 35 kg (77 lb) of explosives packed into an olive-green BMW car were detonated by remote control as Hajj’s four-wheel-drive vehicle drove by.
Hajj, 54, had been seen as one of two main contenders for the job of army chief, traditionally a Maronite Christian. The post would fall vacant if parliament elects Suleiman president in a long-delayed vote now slated for Monday.
“The army and the Lebanese people will not succumb to terrorism,” Suleiman said in a statement. “(Hajj’s) martyrdom strengthens us and reinforces our belief in victory and confidence in Lebanon’s future.”
Political and religious leaders said the killing showed the need to reduce tensions by electing Suleiman swiftly. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the military was targeted for its role in preserving Lebanon’s security and stability.
No group claimed responsibility for Hajj’s killing.
Some Lebanese politicians accuse Syria of carrying out the string of nine killings. Damascus has denied any involvement.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem denounced the “criminal attack” on Hajj. “We condemn any action that threatens Lebanon,” he said.
The White House said it would not assign blame until Lebanon’s probe of the latest assassination is complete. But a spokesman said President George W. Bush would “continue to stand with the Lebanese people as they counter those who attempt to undermine their security and freedom”.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned Hajj’s killing and calls on the Lebanese for “calm and restraint at this critical juncture in their history”.
Hajj helped lead an army onslaught on al Qaeda-inspired militants at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon this year in which 168 soldiers and about 230 Fatah al-Islam fighters were killed.
“Once he was nominated for the leadership (of the army), they killed him,” his father Elias told reporters in the slain officer’s village of Rmeish in southern Lebanon. Hajj came from a family of tobacco farmers and was the eldest of 12 children.
The blast wrecked Hajj’s car, burnt others and damaged buildings. Charred metal littered the blackened streets.
“We are facing a security catastrophe,” said Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, calling on the interior minister to resign. Visibly shaken, the former army chief told reporters Hajj had been his preference for the top military post.
The army has stayed largely neutral in Lebanon’s political turmoil and is regarded as a unifying force.
On Monday, the parliamentary speaker postponed the presidential election to December 17, the eighth delay so far.
Pro- and anti-Syrian factions agreed last week Suleiman should take the presidency, reserved for a Maronite. It has been vacant since the term of Emile Lahoud ended on November 23.
Arab and Western states fear a prolonged vacuum in the presidency could further destabilize Lebanon, where rival camps have accused each other of rearming and training fighters.
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Mohammad Azakir in Beirut, Claudia Parsons at the United Nations and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Robert Woodward