The United States said Tuesday it backs efforts to form a new governing coalition in Lebanon, after last week’s deadly bomb blast in Beirut plunged the country into political crisis, as Hezbollah rejected calls to refer the investigation in the blast that killed a top intelligence officer to the international tribunal.
“We support the efforts of President (Michel) Suleiman and other responsible leaders in Lebanon to build an effective government and to take the necessary next steps in the wake of the October 19th terrorist attack,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
The car bombing in Beirut killed police intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan, who led a series of probes linking the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to political assassinations in Lebanon.
Asked specifically if Washington supported a change of government in the country, Nuland said: “President Suleiman is engaged in discussions with all parties to form a new government. We support that process.”
“In the interim, we don’t want to see a vacuum,” she added.
“The export of instability from Syria threatens the security of Lebanon now more than ever, and it's really up to the Lebanese people to choose a government that is going to counter this threat,” according to AFP.
Nuland’s remarks echoed those of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who on Tuesday also expressed concern about Lebanon’s stability.
The bombing has raised fears about unrest in the country, which is divided between supporters and opponents of Assad, whose country supervised its small neighbor for nearly 30 years.
Hassan’s murder also has provoked a political crisis, with a Syria-hostile opposition calling for the resignation of the government dominated by the Syrian-backed Hezbollah.
The opposition -- which has blamed Damascus for Hassan’s killing -- has announced that its delegates would boycott all meetings with the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati until he steps down.
Mikati expressed a desire to step down but said Saturday he would stay at the request of Suleiman in the “national interest.”
While it supports the opposition, the international community reacted by backing Mikati amid fears of a political void.
On Monday, the ambassadors of Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States expressed their “unequivocal condemnation of any attempt to destabilize Lebanon through political assassination.”
Also on Monday, the United States said it would send a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) team to Lebanon to assist in the investigation of Hassan’s murder. Nuland said Tuesday the team would be sent “shortly.”
Hezbollah rejects international probe
Syria’s powerful ally Hezbollah was accused Tuesday by Lebanese political opponents of playing a role in the assassination of Hassan who used his post to fight Syrian meddling in Lebanon.
The group, which dominates Lebanon’s government, rejected calls to refer the investigation of the killing to the international tribunal that implicated Hezbollah figures in the truck bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri under similar circumstances.
Hassan’s killing has sent tremors along Lebanon’s most tenuous political fault line, that separating allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad and those who oppose him.
Lebanon’s two largest political coalitions have lined up on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war. The Shiite group 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.
Hassan, a Sunni Muslim, was clearly in the latter camp, and his killing has led to sectarian violence in Lebanon, whose myriad sects have strong ties to their brethren across the border. At least 13 people have died in clashes between pro- and anti-Syria factions since the assassination -- the deadliest violence in Beirut in four years.
Lebanese investigators have yet to cast blame in Hassan’s killing, but details about the plot made public Tuesday suggest it was an inside job by someone who tracked Hassan’s international travels and monitored the secret office he used to meet informants.
Those details offered new ammunition to anti-Syria politicians who accuse the Assad regime and Hezbollah in the killing, according to The Associated Press.
“I said from the beginning, ‘Who killed General Wissam al-Hassan and was behind the terrorist attack?’ They are the Syrian and Iranian regimes through the hands of Hezbollah,” parliament member Khaled Daher said on LBC TV.
Security officials say Hassan returned to Lebanon from Europe the night before he was killed but traveled under a false name and told almost no one he was in Beirut. Daher suggested that officials at the Beirut airport, a Hezbollah stronghold, tipped off the killers.
“This airport is full of Hezbollah gangs who bring into Beirut whatever they want,” he said.
Hassan’s killing bore a striking similarity to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive truck bomb in Beirut in 2005. Hassan handled security for Hariri and was close to his son, Saad, who also served as prime minister and inherited his father's role as the leading opponent of Syrian involvement in Lebanon.
Noting the similarities, some lawmakers have called for the investigation into Hassan’s death to be referred to the international tribunal set up to probe the elder Hariri’s killing. The U.N.-backed tribunal has indicted four Hezbollah members in the killing of Hariri and 22 others. Hezbollah has denied involvement.
On Tuesday, Hezbollah’s deputy leader rejected these calls, saying Hassan’s killing was a crime that sought to destabilize Lebanon and should be dealt with in Lebanese courts.
“Any attempt to add an international dimension will not do anything to this case,” Sheikh Naim Kassam said in a statement. “This is a Lebanese affair and under the authority of Lebanese laws.”
New details from the investigation into Hassan’s killing emerged Tuesday, suggesting it was carried out by a group that had cracked the intelligence chief’s tight security regime.
Details about Hassan’s killing
The head of Lebanon’s police, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, said the bomb that killed Hassan was planted in a stolen car that had been parked on a narrow street near a secret office Hassan occasionally used to meet sources.
Hassan had returned to Lebanon from Paris the night before, but few people knew he was in Beirut, Rifi said. Hassan and his bodyguard were driving a rented Honda Accord that was not armored to avoid drawing attention.
Rifi said the bomb was detonated by remote control from a place overlooking the site. He confirmed reports from Washington Monday that the FBI was sending a team to Lebanon to help with the investigation. FBI teams have helped investigate several bombings in Lebanon since 2005.
Lebanese newspapers reported Rif’s comments Tuesday after he briefed top editors the night before.
A senior Lebanese security official said Hassan entered Beirut’s airport using a false name and later sent his passport back to be stamped. The official said this could have alerted the attackers that Hassan was in Lebanon.
Authorities are examining phone calls to and from Hassan’s mobile phone, the official also said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The killing echoed assassinations of other anti-Syria figures: the newspaper editor and lawmaker Gibran Tueni in 2005 and the Christian lawmaker Antoine Ghanem in 2007. Both were killed by car bombs soon after they secretly returning from abroad.
Hassan was known for breaking up foreign spy rings and terrorist cells as well as for cases seen as strikes against Hezbollah and Syria.
Earlier this year, his work led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, who is accused of plotting a wave of bombings in Lebanon at Syria’s behest. Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad’s most senior aides, was indicted in absentia in the August sweep.