HARISA, Lebanon (AP) – Under a drenching rain, the Lebanese nation and the military bid a mournful farewell Friday to a top general slain in a car bombing two days ago in a funeral that briefly united the country’s deeply divided politicians.
Hundreds of grieving Lebanese stood in the downpour on stops along the route as Maj. Gen. Francois Hajj’s flag-draped casket was taken from his home in the Beirut suburb of Baabda to the Maronite Catholic basilica in the Christian mountain heartland north of Beirut for an official service.
“Their bloody message will not scare us,” read one banner, refering to the still unknown killers, along the route hung with Lebanese red-and-white flags with the green cedar tree. An old woman threw rose petals in front of the procession as it passsed through the port of Jounieh.
Lebanon has been shaken by a string of assassinations since 2005, but Hajj was the first military figure to be killed in such an attack, prompting fears that even the military, seen as the sole institution holding the country together, was now a target in Lebanon’s unending political turmoil.
“They killed Hajj because he was a clean leader, a poor and wise man with foresight,” said Kafa Makhlouf, a 45-year-old Christian housewife, who drove an hour to Harisa, the mountain town overlooking the Mediterranean where the funeral mass was held at the basilica.
Clutching her umbrella, Makhlouf, said Hajj’s assassins sought to “split the army, the only guarantee of national peace and unity.”
Tony Khoury, an 18-year-old Christian student, said he believed Hajj was killed because he was simply “a patriotic man who defended Lebanon.”
Hajj’s driver, Khairallah Hadwan, a Shiite, who was also killed in Wednesday’s blast in Baabda, was buried in the eastern Bekaa Valley. The yellow banner of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that dominates the area, hung on a wall as a show of condolences as Islamic prayers were read before his casket in a mosque.
Hajj’s slaying has hightened tensions at a time when Lebanon is embroiled in the latest chapter of its yearlong crisis, a dispute over electing a new president. The post has been left empty since Emile Lahoud’s term ended Nov. 23, with supporters of the Western-backed government and the opposition, led by pro-Syrian Hezbollah, unable to agree on a successor. There was no claim of responsibility for the bombing.
Military investigators are focusing on the possibility he was killed by Islamic militants because Hajj led a three-month military campaign this summer that crushed an al-Qaeda-inspired group, Fatah Islam, in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. But the investigators are also looking into the possibility he was killed in connection to the dispute over the presidency.
At the basilica, Army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman, seen as a likely consensus candidate to become president, saluted before the coffin.
Hajj was expected to succeed Suleiman at the military helm if Suleiman is elected president. Bells tolled while pallbearers from various army units carried the coffin into the basilica, as hundreds of mourners applauded and threw rose petals at the casket. Pro-government and opposition politicians, Christian and Muslim, including a delegation from Hezbollah, which leads the opposition, attended the funeral mass, led by Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, Patriarch of the Maronite Church. Maj. Gen. Claudio Graziano, Italian commander of U.N. forces in southern Lebanon, who lost six of his peacekeepers in a June car bombing, said Thursday he was “deeply sorry for the loss of a great soldier and a personal friend.”
A message from Pope Benedict XVI, blessing Hajj and offering condolences, was read by a bishop. The Pope condemned the “unjustified violence” and called on Lebanese politicians to reconcile.
Army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Shawki Masri, promised in a eulogy the military would “not rest until the murderers are apprehended and punished” and called on the government and opposition to set aside their differences and work to end the political deadlock.
“In unity, we will have the strength and we can achieve the impossible,” said Masri, the highest-ranking officer from the Druse sect, an offshoot of Islam. After the mass, the coffin was driven halfway across Lebanon for burial in Hajj’s hometown of Rmeish, near the southern border with Israel.
Security agents in the southern city of Sidon detained Thursday four Lebanese in whose names the car used in the bombing was registered. The men were detained from a neighborhood near the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp, where Islamic militant groups are known to operate. But Defense Minister Elias Murr, speaking on Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television late Thursday, said he would not limit the suspects to just “criminal terrorists”, a reference to Islamic militants.
Murr, who survived a similar car bombing with severe injuries in 2005, said there “were serious and advanced leads this time, much more than in the other crimes,” but gave no details.
U.S. President George W. Bush condemned the assassination and took a tough tone against Syria, calling on it to stop interference in Lebanon, although he did not accuse Damascus in the slaying.
Some anti-Syrian politicians accused Damascus of being behind the bombing to scuttle the presidential election but muted their rhetoric after Suleiman called on Lebanon’s divided factions to avoid “politicizing” Hajj’s death.