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Release of pro-Syrian Generals Heightens Lebanese Political Tension

The release of four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals, in custody since 2005 for suspicion of involvement in the slaying of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is stirring up a political tempest between the pro-Western parliamentary majority and the opposition Hezbollah, just over a month before the June 7 parliamentary elections.

The Hezbollah-led opposition in Lebanon is taking advantage of the decision by a United Nations-backed tribunal to release four senior generals, Wednesday, to score points ahead of the country's upcoming parliamentary elections.

The four former top generals, who were suspected of playing a part in the February, 2005 slaying of former Prime Minister Hariri, have been jailed for nearly four years.

The men were set free, Wednesday, to a tumultuous welcome by their supporters, following a decision by Belgian judge Daniel Fransen, who argued that they were, before any conviction, "presumed to be innocent."

UN special prosecutor Daniel Bellamare submitted a report, Monday, indicating that there was insufficient evidence to hold the men in custody, any longer.

The release of the men, however, is causing a political fury in Beirut, where the men, with the support of Hezbollah and its allies, have begun lambasting the government, as well as the Lebanese judiciary system, for "wrongfully arresting them."

Former UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, responsible for the original decision to arrest them, told the Arab daily Al Hayat that the men's release did not exonerate them, and that they may still be judged in the case.

The ruling pro-Western March 14th coalition came under a high-pitched attack from Hezbollah leaders, as well as the Hezbollah-run Al Manar TV.

Jamil Sayyed, one of the four generals released Wednesday, claims that his arrest was "politically motivated," and that he, along with Hezbollah, intend to use the release for political gain in the upcoming elections.

Both parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister, and Druze ally Walid Jumblatt noted that the UN decision to release the generals came without pressure from anyone, and that they would respect it.

Jumblatt, however, blasted Hezbollah for using the release for political capital and questioned whether more political assassinations were in the cards now that the men were free:

He says that the release of the generals was a sad spectacle, because they were symbols of the former Syrian tutelage over Lebanon, reminding us of the bad, old days. He asks if they are dreaming of coming to power, once again? We won't let that happens, he insists. What else do they want to do, he asks, silence the judiciary? Is there going to be a new wave of assassinations, under the pretext that there is no security in the country?

The ruling March 14th coalition accuses Syria of being behind the slaying of former Prime Minister Hariri, as well as a number of other top politicians and journalists, who were Syrian opponents. Damascus has steadfastly denied the charges.

Hilal Kashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, thinks that the Hezbollah-led opposition scored a big victory with the general's release and could win the parliamentary elections because of it:

"The opposition is using the release of the 4 senior officers as a moral victory, and says for the past 3 years and 8 months, four officers were jailed for no reason, whatsoever and they are coming [down] hard on the Lebanese legal system and [in] the process the Lebanese government, and they say this is the beginning," said Khashan. "They see the release as the beginning of a new era in Lebanon and they expect the opposition, now, to win big in the forthcoming parliamentary elections."

Until now, both the ruling March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition have been running neck in neck in opinion polls and analysts were expecting the results of parliamentary elections to be extremely close.