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Lebanon blast kills army general

  • Story Highlights
  • Brig. Gen. Francois Al-Hajj among dead from blast, Lebanese sources say
  • His bodyguard also killed in attack in Beirut's Christian suburb of Baabda
  • Blast comes while lawmakers are deadlocked over a new president
  • Al-Hajj was tipped to head army if Gen. Michel Suleiman became president
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From Brent Sadler
CNN
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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- A high-ranking Lebanese army general and his bodyguard were killed in an explosion in Beirut's Christian suburb of Baabda Wednesday, military intelligence sources told CNN.

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Vehicles burn at the site of a car bomb blast in the Christian suburb of Beirut on Wednesday.

Brig. Gen. Francois Al-Hajj was the head of operations for the Lebanese army and was believed to be a top candidate to take over as army commander in the event current commander Gen. Michel Suleiman is elected president.

In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the Bush administration "strongly condemns" the assassination.

"This is a crucial time as Lebanon seeks to maintain a democratically elected government and select a new president," Johndroe said. "President Bush will continue to stand with the Lebanese people as they counter those who attempt to undermine their security and freedom."

According to Lebanese media, the source of the explosion was a car bomb. Early reports said four people had died in the blast but that was later corrected to just the two deaths.

Video from the scene in the aftermath showed burning vehicles and debris scattered over a wide area.

The blast came at a time of high political turmoil in Lebanon as pro- and anti-Syrian lawmakers in parliament are locked in a battle to elect a new president. Despite general agreement between factions for Suleiman to fill the vacant presidency, political wrangling has kept it from coming up for a vote. Video Watch as CNN's Brent Sadler describes the political context in which the blast occurred »

Late Tuesday, Speaker Nabih Berri postponed -- for an eighth time -- a parliamentary session scheduled for Wednesday to elect a new president. The next session is slated for December 17.

The failure to settle on a candidate has lead to a vacuum of power. The army and other security forces have been on full alert as the nation braced itself for possible violence.

In recent months, reports have emerged that the Christian and Muslim sectors of the community have been stockpiling weapons. In addition, the United Nations has some 13,000 soldiers in the south.

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The country's recent history includes near-constant factional fighting, political maneuvering and friction with Syria, along with assassinations and attempted assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians.

In February 2005, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut sparked widespread protests that led to the ouster of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

U.N. investigators concluded last year that Hariri's death may be linked to high-ranking Syrian officials. Syria has denied any involvement in the killings and said the U.N. tribunal investigating Hariri's death is a violation of its sovereignty.

In the past two years, four members of parliament have been assassinated.

In addition to a possible political assassination, CNN's Brent Sadler reported another line of investigation suggests Hajj's death may be linked linked to Islamic militancy.

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"Gen. Hajj was very much in the center of action against Islamic militants for many weeks in battles that lead to the deaths of more than 160 soldiers and more than 200 militants," he said.

The Lebanese military battled Islamic militants in refugee camps in the country's north for about two months, starting in May. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Kathleen Koch contributed to this report

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