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Senior Lebanese Army general assassinated.

Byline: Hani M. Bathish

Summary: A senior rmy general was killed along with his body guard Wednesday when a powerful bomb ripped through his car in front of the Baabda Municipality building as he was driving to work at the Defense Ministry in Yarze. Brigadier General Francois Hajj, 55, from the southern village of Rmeish, was head of operations for the Lebanese Armed Forces.

BEIRUT: A senior rmy general was killed along with his body guard Wednesday when a powerful bomb ripped through his car in front of the Baabda Municipality building as he was driving to work at the Defense Ministry in Yarze.

Brigadier General Francois Hajj, 55, from the southern village of Rmeish, was head of operations for the Lebanese Armed Forces and was a prime contender to succeed LAF commander General Michel Suleiman if the later is elected president. Hajj was posthumously promoted to major general.

Hajj's bodyguard, Sergeant Khairallah Ali Hedwan, also perished in the explosion, while six other people in the blast zone sustained minor to serious injuries. Hedwan, who was in the car with Hajj, hails from the village of Hazeen near Baalbek. The wounded include Rene Neameh, First Sergeant Wissam Sweidan, Sami Fouad Feghali, Souad al-Saifi and Shahin Msaed and his son.

The explosion at approximately 7 a.m. set vehicles on fire and damaged surrounding buildings. Charred metal littered the streets as firefighters worked to put out the blaze and Lebanese Red Cross rescue workers rushed the wounded to nearby hospitals.

According to the army, the bomb, containing 35 kilograms of TNT, was placed inside a 30-year-old olive green BMW that was parked along the side of the road. The device appears to have been triggered remotely. Local witnesses told investigators at the site that they had seen the vehicle park in the area less than an hour before the explosion, but could not give an accurate description of the driver who left the car, a judicial source said.

The judicial source told The Daily Star that security forces detained a bearded man found close to the scene of the explosion who is currently being questioned. The source added that "the mere fact that the man was being questioned makes him a suspect."

Security sources added that three individuals from the Taamir-Ain al-Hilweh district in Sidon were taken in for questioning by the army in connection with the assassination. Investigations showed that the vehicle's license plate was at one time registered in the names of these three individuals.

Parts of Hajj's vehicle were scattered up to 100 meters from the blast zone due to the strength of the blast. His body was recovered 20 minutes after the explosion in a crater created by an Israeli bomb during the summer 2006 war, the National News Agency reported.

The blast crated a 2-meter-wide crater and resulted in serious damage to surrounding buildings up to 150 meters away from the explosion. Security forces and army soldiers threw a strict security cordon around the site of the attack.

Judge Jean Fahd, the government representative to the Military Tribunal, was among the first to arrive at the blast site. State Prosecutor Said Mirza and Military Investigative Magistrate Rashid Mizher also arrived at the acene, followed by Internal Security Forces chief Ashraf Rifi.

A security source told The Daily Star that investigations are focusing on closed-circuit-camera footage recovered from security cameras belonging to the municipality that overlooks the blast site.

The source said internal investigations are starting into what appears to have been a "momentary lapse" in security that allowed an unidentified vehicle to park in the area without arousing suspicion. "The area is subject to very tight security measures, unidentified vehicles are not permitted to park along the roadside and yet there was a momentary lapse that allowed this vehicle to get through," the source said.

The early morning blast shook the quiet residential neighborhood a little after 7 a.m., a time when many residents were heading to work or driving their children to school.

"It was a very powerful and loud blast, it startled us," said Khalil Hussein, a resident who lives on the top floor of a building barely 200 meters from the blast zone.

"The first thing I did was make sure my wife and baby were alright, my wife is not Lebanese and she was in shock," Khalil told The Daily Star. "I later went down to see my neighbors in the building. Apartments on lower floors sustained major damage as doors were ripped off their hinges. In our apartment all the glass was shattered," Khalil said. "It reminded me of the Civil War."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Dec 13, 2007
Words:789
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