Hezbollah rejects international probe in killing

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BEIRUT — Syria’s powerful ally Hezbollah was accused Tuesday by Lebanese political opponents of playing a role in the assassination of a top intelligence officer 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.

Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan was killed Oct. 19 in a car bomb that exploded next to his car in a residential Beirut neighborhood, shearing the balconies off apartment towers and killing al-Hassan, his bodyguard and a civilian. Scores more were injured.

The 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.

Al-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 al-Hassan’s killing, but details about the plot made public Tuesday suggest it was an inside job by someone who tracked al-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.

“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 al-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.

Al-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. Al-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 al-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 al-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,” Sheik Naim Kassam said in a statement. “This is a Lebanese affair and under the authority of Lebanese laws.”

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