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Apr 24, 2:30 PM EDT

Powerful former Syrian army general dies in hospital


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BEIRUT (AP) -- Rostom Ghazali, the Syrian general once considered the most powerful man in Lebanon and a key suspect in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, has died in a hospital in the capital Damascus, a Syrian activist and local media reported on Friday.

Ghazali, in his early 60s, was once head of his military's powerful political security branch and one of Syrian President Bashar Assad's most trusted generals.

There was no official government comment and the circumstances of his death remain unclear.

Director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdurrahman said Ghazali died nearly two months after he was admitted with a head injury. Abdurrahman said Ghazali had been clinically dead for weeks, quoting informed medical officials in the hospital.

The Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has access to Syrian officials, and other Lebanese TV stations also reported Ghazali's death, quoting officials.

Reports at the time of Ghazali's injury said he was beaten by the bodyguards of another Syrian general, in a dramatic escalation of a political dispute.

The reports said the disagreement between the two generals started after Ghazali's men were not allowed to play a bigger role in a government offensive against opposition fighters battling the government.

Lebanese media reported that both Ghazali and his rival general were sacked. Reshuffles in Syria's security and military apparatuses are generally not made public.

Ghazali, a Sunni Muslim from the southern village of Qarfa, rose in the military to become the intelligence chief in Lebanon in 2002, replacing long-serving general Ghazi Kenaan who became Interior Minister.

Ghazali kept the post until 2005 when Syrian forces had to withdraw from the tiny Arab country, ending nearly three decades of military presence following massive anti-Syrian protests after Hariri's February 2005 assassination.

A U.N. probe later that year concluded that high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese security officials, including Ghazali, plotted Hariri's assassination. A U.N.-backed tribunal is currently trying five Hezbollah members in absentia over the killing. Both Damascus and Hezbollah have strongly denied involvement.

In 2012, after a bomb killed four of the country's top generals in Damascus, Ghazali was named by Assad as head of the Political Security Department and stayed in the job until mid-March.

With Ghazali's death, several people accused by anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians of being involved in Hariri's killing have died.

Kenaan, the Interior Minister, died in his Damascus office in late 2005 about a month after speaking with investigators about Hariri's assassination. Syrian officials said he shot himself to death, but some in Lebanon believe he was killed.

Syria's Deputy Defense Minister Asef Shawkat was among several top generals killed in a Damascus bombing in July 2012. In 2005, an inadvertently released passage of a U.N. investigative report on the killing cited a witness saying that Shawkat, head of military intelligence at the time, was among those behind Hariri's assassination. Shawkat was the brother-in-law of Assad.

In October 2013, Maj. Gen. Jameh Jameh was killed while fighting rebels in eastern Syria. At the time of Hariri's assassination, Jameh was the second highest ranking Syrian intelligence official based in Lebanon and was Syria's intelligence chief in Beirut.

Meanwhile, Syrian state TV said a plane on a training mission in the country's south crashed because of a technical failure and the pilot is missing. The Observatory however reported that Islamic State fighters downed the plane.

There was no way to independently verify the conflicting reports.

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Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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