A top commander in the Lebanese Army was killed in an explosion targeting his vehicle, outside Beirut, this morning. He is the ninth top figure to be assassinated since 2005 and the third in six months, as Edward Yeranian reports from Beirut.
A powerful explosion shredded metal, shattered glass and threw chunks of concrete hundreds of yards, killing Lebanese Army Brigadier General Francois Hajj, instantly.
The general was the head of military operations for the Lebanese Army and had been expected by many to be the next commander of the army.
Hajj's vehicle was completely pulverized by the roadside blast, near the defense ministry, in the affluent Beirut suburb, Ba'abda. His body was reported thrown several hundred feet from the explosion.
The assassination comes at a critical time in Lebanon's history. The country has been without a president for eighteen days, amid a major political crisis. The Lebanese Army has been trying to maintain a precarious stability.
Dory Chamoun - who head's Lebanon's National Liberal Party and who is close to the governing March 14 ruling coalition - says that Hajj's assassination is an attempt to keep Lebanon in a state of chaos and prevent the postponed presidential election from taking place:
"I think that whoever did this does not want a strong army, does not want to have presidential elections in Lebanon," he said. "They are looking to keep the situation completely in the clouds…..and put a brake on whatever is being sought by us, and the other good-willing Lebanese….to try and have presidential elections…"
Chamoun also thinks that whoever committed the crime is trying to destroy Lebanon and is most probably allied with the pro-Syrian opposition.
"They don't want a national reconciliation….the opposition, I mean, and their allies don't want a national reconciliation. They don't want Lebanon," he added. "They want a different kind of Lebanon, which they're seeking, maybe a divided one, maybe something that has nothing to do with the actual constitution….but it's certainly apparent to us that whoever committed this crime today is in cahoots with [working with] the rest of the opposition."
Presidential polls have been postponed eight times, in recent weeks, despite an accord between the anti-Syrian coalition and the Hezbollah-led pro-Syrian opposition, that Lebanon's Army Commander General Michel Suleiman should be the next president.
Both Hezbollah, and its top Christian ally, former Army Commander Michel Aoun, have been trying to extract concessions from the March 14 coalition over the formation of a new government, before a presidential election takes place.
Member of parliament Ibrahim Kena'an, who is close to General Aoun, says the slain officer was close to the general, amid charges from some that Aoun may have been the real target of the killing:
"It's a huge blow for the Lebanese stability, as this assassination is targeting the Lebanese stability through the Lebanese Army. As you know, the Lebanese Army played a major role during the past few weeks and months to keep the unity and keep the Lebanese flag raised all over…..especially this officer, who is a remarkable officer, who was playing an instrumental role as a strategist in these battles….So it's a blow against the unity, against the stability and especially its against any possibility to bring or build bridges between the Lebanese people," said Kena'an. "I think that every officer in the Lebanese Army is actually very dear to us and to General Aoun. As you know, General Aoun was at a very critical period of the Lebanese history the commander of this army and every single officer is dear to us and especially to General Aoun."
The slain officer was the ninth top figure to be assassinated in Lebanon since the February, 2005, slaying of former Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri. Members of parliament from the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition have accused Damascus of being responsible for most of those killings. Several have accused Syria of today's explosion, as well.
Syria denies the charges.