Police and protesters clash after the funeral of police intelligence chief… (Maya Alleruzzo, Associated…)
BEIRUT — Government forces and angry mourners clashed Sunday in a raging street brawl that dramatized how the conflict in neighboring Syria has inflamed Lebanon's sectarian tensions and threatens to destabilize this nation's delicate political balance.
The funeral for a slain police official devolved into an unsightly battle in the heart of the Lebanese capital as mourners tried to storm the hilltop government palace but were turned back by troops.
Soldiers launched tear gas canisters and squeezed salvos of automatic weapons fire into the air in a bid to disperse the enraged crowd of several hundred — mostly young men, some wielding sticks and tossing stones as they charged the prime minister's elegant headquarters, known as the Grand Serail.
After several thrusts by the furious crowd, the protesters retreated into a standoff with troops whose ranks eventually swelled with reinforcements.
The clashes followed a somber and peaceful funeral for Gen. Wissam Hassan, the police intelligence chief assassinated Friday in a car bomb in an upscale Beirut neighborhood. He was laid to rest near the grave of his mentor, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a massive 2005 truck bomb along the Beirut waterfront.
Authorities initially said eight people were killed in Friday's explosion, but have since revised the death toll to three: the intelligence chief, a bodyguard and a woman described as a civilian. Scores were injured in the brazen midafternoon blast in a busy Christian district of East Beirut.
The car bombing — the first major attack in the capital in four years — has outraged opponents of Lebanon's government and resulted in opposition calls for its resignation. The assassination has also elevated tensions in a nation with deep religious and political divides and a history of sectarian conflict.
Friday's blast sparked fears of a return to the years of regular bombings and assassination attempts — many targeting critics of Syria — that followed the sensational slaying of Hariri.
Just as many Lebanese saw Syria's hand in his death, so do many suspect the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Hassan's death. In August, Hassan's police branch exposed an incendiary case: an alleged Syrian plot to unleash a bombing campaign in Lebanon and foment sectarian turmoil.
Syria has denied responsibility for Hassan's killing, and no evidence has emerged publicly linking Damascus to the attack.
The slain intelligence official had many potential enemies. He reportedly oversaw investigations of Israeli spy rings, Islamic militants and covert operatives of Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group. Hassan operated in a murky world of clandestine plots, impenetrable intrigue and deep-rooted rivalries.
A major question for investigators is how the assassins were able to track the movements of a veteran intelligence operative who was known to employ extreme security measures.
In a nation where so many political assassinations remain unresolved, there is widespread skepticism that the killers will be identified or punished.
Sunday's disturbances took place around Martyrs' Square in central Beirut, an area that has been largely reconstructed after extensive damage during a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. Tensions ebbed after about an hour of sporadic clashes. There was no word on casualties.
The protesters who clashed with authorities were affiliated with the March 14 opposition bloc, a mostly Sunni Muslim faction that has demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire telecommunications magnate. Mikati heads a government dominated by Hezbollah, a close ally of Assad. Opponents call his administration a pawn of the Syrian president.
During the funeral ceremony, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora pointedly blamed the current Lebanese administration for Hassan's killing and called for its downfall without negotiation.
As the clashes unfolded, some protesters shouted anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah slogans. A few also hoisted the tricolor banner of the Syrian rebels.
After Friday's car bombing, Mikati said he had offered to resign but was convinced to stay to avoid a power vacuum at a delicate moment.
The prime minister says he has followed a "disassociation" policy meant to keep the nation insulated from the chaos in Syria, where a more than 19-month rebellion has cost an estimated 30,000 lives.
Thousands of people showed up for Hassan's state funeral. But the attendance appeared to be less than the massive turnout that opposition figures had called for. Hassan was a familiar figure in security and political circles, but wasn't especially well known among ordinary Lebanese.