Lebanese fear new killings after bombing

Oct. 22, 2012 at 2:04 PM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- The bomb assassination of one of Lebanon's top intelligence chiefs, a fervent foe of Syria which is widely perceived to have masterminded Friday's attack, has intensified fears the divided country faces another wave of political killings.

As the civil war in Syria, which has long sought to control its tiny Mediterranean neighbor, escalates daily, Lebanese are alarmed that the embattled Damascus regime will seek to destabilize the region.

They worry that means unleashing another bout of bloodletting like that triggered by the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of Lebanon's foremost statesman, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Indeed, there's a long thread running from wiping out Hariri's entire motorcade of five armored limousines nearly eight years ago and killing Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan last week in a crowded Beirut square near his headquarters.

Hariri, a billionaire tycoon and five times prime minister, was, like Hassan, a Sunni Muslim and a staunch opponent of Syria and its Lebanese allies who dominated Lebanon.

They were seen as responsible for killing Hariri and 22 others in a massive suicide bombing in central Beirut after he vowed to end Syria's 29-year occupation of his country.

Damascus denies that. But in June 2011, a U.N.-mandated international tribunal indicted four members of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement allied to Damascus and Tehran, for the attack. Tribunal officials say another two may be indicted soon. Hezbollah denies involvement in killing Hariri but is widely seen as the culprit.

The assassination of Hassan, who was close to Hariri and played a key role in hunting his killers, follows alleged assassination attempts to kill three other anti-Syrian figures since April and at least one bid to kill Hassan and his chief, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, the ISF commander.

On Jan. 28, the An Nahar daily -- whose virulently anti-Syrian former Editor Gibran Tueni was assassinated weeks after Hariri was slain -- reported that Hassan's ISF intelligence arm had thwarted a plot to kill him and Rifi.

Security sources later said two hit teams planned to plant two bomb-laden cars on two side streets leading to ISF headquarters in the Achrafiyeh quarter of Christian East Beirut, a couple of blocks from the spot where Hassan was killed Friday.

The bombs were to be detonated by remote control as the cars carrying Rifi and Hassan passed. But Hassan's extensive intelligence network learned about the planned ambush. One report said one of the teams was caught.

There were clear similarities to the Hariri assassination.

Hassan had been extremely close to Hariri, having been assigned by the ISF, a predominantly Sunni force loyal to Hariri, as the head of the prime minister's official security detail, which was separate from Hariri's own security team.

It was Hassan who some time before Hariri's killing became suspicious that Ali al-Hajj, a senior security official seconded to Hariri's security apparatus, was working for Syrian intelligence, which at that time ran virtually all of Lebanon's security apparatus.

Sources close to Hariri say the prime minister, primed by Hassan, fed false information to Hajj, which the Syrians acted upon, thus exposing Hajj. Hajj was removed from Hariri's retinue. But since Syria controlled Lebanon's security apparatus, he was promoted to head the ISF.

After Hariri was killed, Hajj was one of four pro-Syrian Lebanese security chiefs arrested on suspicion of involvement in the murder. They were held until August 2009 but never indicted.

Security sources say Hajj ordered his men to remove the hulks of the vehicles from Hariri's motorcade from the scene of the 2005 bombing, seen as an attempt to eliminate vital forensic evidence.

In the 2 1/2 years that followed, 11 prominent anti-Syrian figures were assassinated, all but one by bombs. Three others survived attacks.

Lebanon's president and prime minister have publicly fingered Syria for killing Hassan. Damascus and Hezbollah deny involvement.

But Hassan was clearly a threat to the Syrian regime.

Earlier this year, he uncovered an alleged plot to smuggle explosives into Lebanon for terrorist attacks. It centered on former Lebanese Information Minister Michel Samaha, a longtime ally of Damascus. He was arrested Aug. 9 and reportedly confessed.

Samaha, a Christian, was allegedly taped by one of Hassan's agents discussing the plot with the former head of Lebanon's General Intelligence Directorate, Maj. Gen. Jamil Sayyed, one of the pro-Syrian generals locked up with Hajj. Sayyed disputes that.

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