Lebanese army soldiers, rescue workers and civilians gather at the site… (Bilal Hussein / Associated…)
BEIRUT — A top intelligence official was among eight people killed when a powerful car bomb exploded in the Lebanese capital, evoking memories of this nation's brutal civil war and igniting fears of major violence spilling over from Syria.
The explosion in a bustling district was the most dramatic indication that Syria's bruising civil conflict may be spreading havoc beyond its borders, provoking instability in Lebanon, Turkey and other neighboring nations.
Hours after the midafternoon blast, which also left scores injured, authorities confirmed that the dead included Gen. Wissam Hassan, intelligence chief for Lebanon's Internal Security Forces.
PHOTOS: Bombing in Beirut
Hassan was allied with a political bloc that is a fierce opponent of the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria.
News of the killing of Hassan, who reportedly traveled with a trusted security detail and maintained secrecy about his movements, immediately pointed to a well-planned assassination.
His slaying signals a potentially perilous moment for Lebanon, with its weak central government and profound sectarian fissures. Many worry that the attack could trigger new violence across the nation's various religious fault lines.
"I think today will be remembered as the day the Syrian conflict jumped the border into Lebanon in a major way," said Firas Maksad, a Mideast analyst based in Washington.
With his well-known anti-Assad stance, the slain intelligence chief "was in many ways a dead man walking," Maksad said.
The Lebanese government said there was no immediate indication of who was behind the bombing. But anti-Assad politicians here placed the blame at the door of the Syrian government, which was accused of assassinating a series of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians in a spate of mysterious attacks from 2005 to 2007.
Lebanon's sectarian-tinged civil war lasted 15 years, until a peace plan went into effect in 1990. Syrian troops remained in Lebanon until 2005, when outrage about the truck-bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri forced Syria to withdraw its forces after almost 30 years of occupation. But Syria retains many supporters in Lebanon, and Syrian secret police are widely believed to operate in the country.
"Who killed Wissam Hassan is as clear as day," Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri — Rafik Hariri's son — told a Lebanese television channel, naming Assad as the culprit.
Lebanese took to the streets in several areas to protest the attack, burning tires and blocking roads. Gunfire was reported in the northern city of Tripoli, site of frequent clashes between supporters and opponents of Assad. Lebanese military forces were deployed in Tripoli and elsewhere to quell the violence.
Many Lebanese were skeptical that the killers would be brought to justice in a nation where so many political killings have never been resolved.
Hassan was a loyalist of Lebanon's anti-Assad "March 14" coalition, a Sunni Muslim-led faction said to have close ties to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The group stands in opposition to the current Lebanese government, which is backed by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group and a loyal ally of Assad.
Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad are mostly members of their country's Sunni majority. Assad and many of his top security chiefs are members of the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot.
Anti-Assad Lebanese politicians and activists have publicly accused Syria of trying to provoke violence in Lebanon to instigate sectarian strife in order to shift attention away from Syria's military campaign against its armed opponents.
Rumors swirled Friday that Hassan had worked closely with the Syrian opposition, which has a robust presence in Lebanon. There was no official confirmation of reports that he had helped facilitate aid for Syrian rebels, but he was linked to several high-profile cases embarrassing to Syria.
Hassan played a central role in the arrest of former Lebanese Information Minister Michel Samaha, who is said to be close to Assad. The former Lebanese parliament member was arrested in August on charges of colluding with Syria to conduct terrorist attacks in Lebanon. Allies of Samaha condemned the arrest as politically motivated.
The slain intelligence chief also gave evidence to an international tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a leading Sunni figure who was killed along with 22 other people. Last year, the tribunal indicted four Hezbollah operatives in the case. Hezbollah has denied any involvement and said evidence against its members was fabricated.
Hassan was also said to be intimately involved in security arrangements for Lebanese opposition figures critical of Assad's rule in Syria.