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Top Lebanese Army Officer Killed in Bombing


And now to Lebanon. An assassination there today could make the ongoing political crisis even worse. Lebanon's president, Emile Lahud, ended his term two weeks ago, leaving rival factions unable to agree on his successor. And today, a car bomb exploded in a suburb of Beirut, killing a top-level army commander.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Beirut.

PETER KENYON: Residents of Baabda, in the hills just above Beirut, are used to loud noises. In the summer of 2006, Israeli war planes destroyed a bridge here during its war with the Hezbollah militia. But Baabda policeman Eli Sawaya(ph) says this morning's car bombing was much louder than that one.

Mr. ELI SAWAYA (Police Officer, Baabda District): (Through translator) We knew it was a car bomb because parts of it came across here, from the bridge to here. And it's about a hundred meters away. When you join the army here, you join to defend your country and you join to die for your country. But we don't expect people to die in this horrendous way.

KENYON: Lebanese security sources estimated that more than 75 pounds of explosives have been packed into the booby-trapped car that detonated just as the car carrying Brigadier General Francois Hajj was passing. There has been a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon, but this is the first to target an active duty senior military officer, and that has sent a chill through people here.

The army is the closest thing to a genuine national institution the country has these days. The troops are a mix of Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslims and Shiites. An army commander, Michel Suleiman, has been credited with keeping the army politically neutral and working to keep the peace among the country's fractious parties.

General Suleiman is also widely expected to become Lebanon's next president. And until today, Francois Hajj was a leading candidate to take over the army when that happened.

(Soundbite of people talking)

KENYON: Baabda resident Arlene Algur(ph) wanders amid the broken glass in front of her apartment. She's still wearing her pink pajamas, and in her shock and grief, she seems to reflect the frustration of a populace that has been waiting in vain for its leaders to solve their problems and get on with running the country.

Ms. ARLENE ALGUR (Resident, Baabda District): (Through translator) Death is better. You don't feel anything. They want to rule the country, so they destroy it. Let them destroy it. Then they can rule stones. Great. Let them. I'll be the first one to leave the country. We're all going to be in mental homes. Then they can rule, empty houses and crazy people.

KENYON: Analysts say they can't rule out the possibility that Islamist militants had a hand in today's attack because Hajj was a leader in the army operation against militants in a Palestinian refugee camp this summer. But many took the killing as a blow against the army itself and a warning that Lebanon's fragile peace could be toppled at any moment.

Some analysts noted that Hajj doesn't fit the profile of the Lebanese politicians slain in the past two years, in that he's not an outspoken critic of Syria or Iran. He was known to be close to Michel Aoun, a leading Christian opposition figure. Aoun said the country had lost a good soldier and a good man.

General MICHEL AOUN (Leader, Free Patriotic Movement): (Through translator) He was brave on the battlefield. He was wise in all the decisions he took. There's no doubt that we are overwhelmed by grief, but we will stand to continue the march.

KENYON: Pro-government lawmaker Amin Gemayel said the assassination makes it more urgent than ever for Lebanon to unite, elect a president and begin rebuilding its institutions. But there was little doubt that the killing had deepened suspicions on all sides and thrown into further doubt Monday's planned vote on a new president.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.