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Lebanon Car Bombing Kills General, Others

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Another bombing in Lebanon may have serious political implications. A bomb just outside Beirut killed a top military officer and at least three other people. Dozens more were wounded. The blast comes as Lebanon faces its worst political crisis since the end of that country's long civil war back in 1990. It's been without a head of state for three weeks. Yesterday, a vote in parliament on a new president was postponed again for the eighth time.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has just returned from the scene of today's bombing, and joins us from Beirut.

Hello.

PETER KENYON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us what you can about that explosion.

KENYON: Well, the Christian suburb of Baabda is probably best known as the home to the presidential palace, which is, of course, without a president at the moment. The explosion happened in a mixed residential and commercial area during the morning rush hour. I spoke with a local police officer. He said he saw pieces of what he believes to have been a car bomb came sailing more than a hundred yards across the bridge, to land near the police station. Other witnesses and the Lebanese army confirmed that the head of military operations, a general named Francois Hajj, was driving past at the moment of the blast. He was killed with several others, and several more people were wounded.

I saw glass shattered hundreds of yards in all directions, as often happens with large bombs. A lot of the residents - some of them still in their pajamas - were clearly in shock. They still had blood on their hands from where their windows had blown in on them. They really were just wandering around trying to make some sense of what happened.

MONTAGNE: Now, there have been several assassinations over the last two years of Lebanese politicians and public figures who were outspokenly against Syria, which effectively controlled Lebanon for many years. What are people saying about why this particular general may have been targeted?

KENYON: Well, this is something new. It's the first time the army has been hit in this way. And at the moment, as you can imagine, there are more questions than answers. And nearly everyone I spoke with this morning in Baabda - General Hajj's neighbors and friends - was convinced that he was a leading candidate to become the next head of the army if the current head, General Michel Suleiman, becomes the next president, as is widely expected.

Now, why that would make General Hajj a target for assassination isn't exactly clear. Hajj was known as a respected military man. He played a major role in the battle this summer against Islamist militants in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. Some acquaintances say he was also considered to be on good terms with former Army Commander Michel Aoun, who is today a leading opposition figure.

In general, the Lebanese army is considered politically neutral. It's perhaps the only truly national institution Lebanon has today. So if the army is now becoming a target in this string of attacks that has plagued the country, that's very disturbing to people here.

MONTAGNE: So bad news for a country that already has been politically paralyzed for this past year.

KENYON: Very bad news. And it's not clear what impact this will have on that paralysis, but it's very unlikely to make things any easier. As you mentioned, the parliamentary vote was postponed yet again yesterday. It's now scheduled for next Monday. We will see if that schedule still holds in the face of this violence.

The Western-backed majority and the Syrian-and-Iranian-supported opposition are continuing to argue over a series of political issues, although both sides say that they've agreed in principle to General Suleiman as the next president. But, apparently, there are so many other issues still to be argued about that it's not clear when this will be finish. So, at the moment, it just seems that this violence is making things more anxious and more uncertain.

MONTAGNE: Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Beirut, where a car bomb has killed a senior Lebanese military commander. 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.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.