Syria blamed for Lebanon general killing

2012-10-24 22:35
Lebanese men sit next to a poster of slain police intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan near the site of a car bomb blast that killed him in Beirut's Christian neighbourhood of Ashrafieh. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

Lebanese men sit next to a poster of slain police intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan near the site of a car bomb blast that killed him in Beirut's Christian neighbourhood of Ashrafieh. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

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Beirut - Lebanon's main opposition bloc blamed the Syrian regime on Wednesday for the killing of a top intelligence officer and demanded the current government, dominated by Syrian ally Hezbollah, resign.

The anti-Syrian opposition alliance said there can be no national dialogue between rival groups before the government led by Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah and its steps down.

"The first step to face strife is the fall of this government," said a statement by the March 14 coalition of anti-Syrian parties read by senior official Fares Soeid. "The government through its head, and the political groups that back him, take major responsibility in facilitating the plan of the criminal Assad regime," it added.

The statement was an apparent reference to what anti-Syrian politicians say is lack of support to investigations into other recent assassination attempts.

Soeid said the opposition will work to bring down the government through peaceful means.

A car bomb on Friday killed Syrian Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, the head of police intelligence and one of the most powerful opponents of Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs. With tensions already high in Lebanon over the civil war next door, the assassination set off clashes between groups that support and oppose the Syrian regime. Violence since the assassination has killed 13 people.

Lebanon's two largest political coalitions have lined up on opposite sides of Syria's civil war. Hezbollah and its partners who dominate the government have stood by Assad's regime, while the Sunni-led opposition backs the rebels seeking to topple the government. Assad and many in his inner circle are Alawites - an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam and a minority in Syria - while the rebels come mostly from the country's Sunni majority.

Al-Hassan was the latest of some dozen anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians and members of the security to be killed since February 2005 when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a truck bomb at Beirut's sea front. Hariri at the time was distancing himself from Syria, which dominated Lebanon for decades.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati offered to resign after the bombing. But he was asked by President Michel Suleiman to stay while he consulted politicians involved in a national dialogue that has been trying for months to find a solution to the dilemma of Hezbollah's arsenal.

Hezbollah the strongest

Hezbollah is by far the country's strongest military force with its own arsenal that it has refused to integrate into the regular army. In addition, Lebanon has dozens of other smaller militias linked to political groups, families or tribes. It's a problem the country has struggled with since the 1975-1990 civil war, but never resolved.

An official close to Suleiman told The Associated Press that one of the topics that would be discussed at a dialogue if the parties agree to attend would be "what kind of government they suggest." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Such attempts to hold a dialogue will mostly likely not succeed because the anti-Syrian groups demand the government resign first while Hezbollah and its allies will most likely refuse to do so.

Suleiman met Wednesday afternoon with Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc, who said after the meeting that the group is ready to attend the national dialogue. Raad added that he and the president did not speak about the Cabinet "at all," apparently a reference to the demands for its resignation.

US ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly met Suleiman and an Embassy statement said she reiterated Washington's support for the president and other leaders as they seek "to build an effective government and take the necessary next steps" in the wake of al-Hassan's assassination.

She noted the concerns shared by the US and international community regarding the potential for instability and the creation of any political vacuum, the statement said.

Angry protesters tried to storm the government palace after al-Hassan's funeral on Sunday, venting their rage at leaders they consider puppets of the Syrian regime. But they were pushed back by troops who fired their guns in the air and filled the street with tear gas.

Calm returned Tuesday after major operations by the army and life was normal in the country's two.

Toyota RAV4

Al-Hassan's work led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Syria's most loyal allies in Lebanon, who is accused of plotting a wave of attacks in Lebanon at Syria's behest. Syrian General Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad's most senior aides, was indicted in absentia in the August sweep.

Officials say his department also had a role in breaking up several Israeli spy rings inside Lebanon in recent years. He also played a role in the Rafiki Hariri assassination in which an international tribunal indicted four members of Hezbollah for Hariri's killing, although the group denies involvement.

On Wednesday, security officials said investigators are looking into the type of explosive used in Friday's bombings to see if they were similar to those that Samaha brought in his car to Lebanon from Syria.

They are also checking data of cellular telephone calls that were done in the areas of the explosion before the blast occurred, the official said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

They added that security cameras in the street of the blast showed that a car had saved a place for the booby-trapped Toyota RAV4 which parked near al-Hassan's office shortly after the other vehicle left.

The Toyota RAV4 was stolen more than a year ago and the thieves had called its original owner asking him if he wants to buy it back. Officials are trying to identify those who called the car owner, they said.

- AP
Read more on:    hezbollah  |  lebanon  |  syria
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