WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Thursday warned Syria against interfering in Lebanon, as investigators tried to determine who was responsible for the assassination of a top Lebanese general.
Brig. Gen. Francois al-Hajj, killed by a car bomb on Wednesday, was a leading contender for army chief to replace Gen. Michel Suleiman, who could be elected president by the Lebanese parliament.
Hajj was the ninth fatality in a string of assassinations that began with the 2005 killing of former Premier Rafik al-Hariri. He was the first military officer to be killed, while the other attacks targeted anti-Syrian figures.
“Like the many victims before him, General al-Hajj was a supporter of Lebanon’s independence and an opponent of Syria’s interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs,” Bush said.
“I call on the international community to support the government of Lebanon in its efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of these vicious attacks,” he said in a statement.
Few facts have emerged on who backed the attack, but there was rampant speculation.
Perhaps it was al Qaeda-type militants striking in payback for Hajj’s role in the army’s summer onslaught on fighters based in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.
Or was it Syria warning the army not to tilt toward the United States or end its tolerance for the armed activities of the Shi’ite Hezbollah group?
On the other hand, maybe it was forces unwilling to see the army led by an officer seen as chummy with Hezbollah and close to a Christian opposition leader.
The White House said Bush was not pointing the finger at Syria for Hajj’s killing. “We’re not prepared to say that at the moment, but clearly Syria has been interfering in Lebanon for far too long,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
Bush’s stern words for Syria came after some hopes for improved ties between Washington and Damascus after Syria attended a U.S.-hosted summit in Annapolis on trying to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The United States supports the Lebanese government’s efforts to maintain stability before presidential elections, Bush said.
“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.
“The people of Lebanon deserve the opportunity to choose their leaders in freedom and without fear,” he said.
Syria denies accusations by its Lebanese opponents that it was behind the assassinations, now under U.N. investigation.
Lebanon asked the United Nations to help it investigate the Hajj attack, which has heightened tension in Lebanon, where a struggle over the presidency among rival factions has fueled the biggest political crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
A U.N. commission investigating political attacks in Lebanon is due to hand over its findings to a special tribunal being established in the Netherlands.
Bush said there was urgency in making sure the tribunal was fully funded and able to start operations as soon as possible.
“This act of terrorism again reminds us of the importance of the International Tribunal established by the U.N. Security Council earlier this year,” he said.
Editing by David Alexander and Todd Eastham