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updated: 10/20/2012 12:14 PM

Lebanon premier puts resignation on hold after bombing

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Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said he agreed to a presidential request that he delay his resignation in the aftermath of a car bombing in Beirut that killed a general who had carried out inquiries into similar attacks on anti-Syrian officials.

Mikati told reporters today he agreed to remain, rather than prompting the formation of a new government, while President Michel Suleiman conducts consultations into the aftermath of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan's assassination. Mikati, who spoke in Beirut after the Cabinet discussed yesterday's attack, said Suleiman urged him to stay to prevent a power vacuum that could tip the country into chaos.

At least eight people were killed and 86 injured in the blast. Officials from the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition called for Mikati to quit, saying he and neighboring Syria were responsible for the bombing. The group has said Syria was behind several explosions and plots that al-Hassan had investigated. Mikati is backed by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah militia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Residents in several Sunni Muslim areas closed roads with burning tires to protest the bombing, Lebanon's worst in at least four years. An overnight clash between supporters and opponents of Assad in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli left a Sunni cleric dead, the official National News Agency said. The unrest between the pro- and anti-Assad camps has provoked concern that neighboring Syria's civil war may spill over the border.

Protest Call

"I call on everyone to take to the streets and demand the resignation of the Cabinet," Wissam Shibli, youth coordinator of the Future Movement, part of the March 14 coalition, said on Future TV today. The movement plans open-ended sit-ins and other action to force the government out, he said.

The U.S. and Saudi embassies urged their nationals in Lebanon to exercise caution. U.S. citizens should take "appropriate measures to ensure their safety and security," according to a statement on the U.S. Embassy website.

The bomb that killed al-Hassan weighed 130 to 150 pounds, General Ashraf Rifi, director general of the Internal Security Forces, was cited as saying by the Assafir newspaper. Rifi said al-Hassan was identified by his revolver and his watch, the paper reported.

The attack will undermine an already weakened economy, Kamel Wazne, an economist and director of the Center for American Studies in Beirut, said today in a phone interview.

"This will add to the recession facing Lebanon," said Wazne. "The economy will feel more pain now because security tensions in the region have come home."

Lebanon's credit default swaps closed yesterday at 402 basis points, up from 397 a day earlier. A basis point equals $1,000 annually on a contract protecting $10 million of debt.

Hariri Assassination

Al-Hassan had been investigating attacks that targeted anti-Syrian officials and figures, starting with the 2005 death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a bombing. He was instrumental in the probe that led to the August arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, an Assad ally who has been charged with plotting to assassinate religious and political figures. More than 20 bombs found with Samaha were prepared by Syrian security agents, NNA said at the time.

Mikati said al-Hassan's killing is linked to his exposure of the Samaha plot.

Al-Hassan will be buried tomorrow next to Hariri, the March 14 bloc said today in a statement. It urged a massive turnout for the ceremony in downtown Beirut.

Revenge Alleged

Leading politicians including March 14's Saad Hariri, son of the murdered ex-premier and himself a former prime minister, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt were quick to accuse Syria of carrying out the killing. Jumblatt told Future TV that Assad's government was taking revenge for the failure of the Samaha plot. Hariri told the same channel that he blamed Assad.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the attack that targeted al-Hassan, "who was a strong defender of Lebanon's security and its people, is a dangerous sign that there are those who continue to seek to undermine Lebanon's stability."

Lebanon's government won Parliament's vote of confidence in July 2011, replacing Saad Hariri's Cabinet, which collapsed in January 2011 amid a dispute with Hezbollah over an inquiry by a United Nations tribunal into the killing of his father.

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