Protesters block roads as gunmen roam streets
BEIRUT – Lebanon’s military was out in force Saturday as authorities struggled to maintain order amid outrage about a deadly bombing that many Lebanese blamed on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Officials urged calm in an edgy nation where fears abound that Friday’s bombing, which killed the country’s police intelligence chief and seven others, could usher in a new wave of communal violence linked to the conflict in neighboring Syria.
On Saturday, protesters burned tires to block roads and highways in and around the capital and elsewhere in Lebanon. Armed gunmen roamed the northern city of Tripoli. Army units were stationed around East Beirut’s Sassine Square, a mostly Christian district near the site of Friday’s audacious mid-afternoon blast.
The focus on Syria reflects how that nation has dominated much-smaller Lebanon militarily and politically for much of the past 30 years.
Syrian troops, who intervened in this country’s civil war in the 1970s and remained long after the conflict ended, pulled out of Lebanon in 2005 after mass protests dubbed the Cedar Revolution. But Syria remains a central player in Lebanese affairs. Damascus is closely allied with Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that is a dominant force in Lebanese politics.
Friday’s bombing was the first significant attack in four years in Beirut, which has been rebuilding and gradually returning to a sense of normality since the civil war ended in 1990 after 15 years of sectarian-fueled bloodshed.
Anti-Assad factions in Lebanon, mostly Sunni Muslims, labeled the slain official, Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the latest “martyr” killed by the Syrian regime and declared Saturday a day of national mourning.
Syria denied any involvement in Friday’s car-bomb attack, and Lebanese authorities said no concrete evidence had yet been found connecting Syria to the blast.
But Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who heads a coalition government generally viewed as pro-Syrian, told reporters that he believed Friday’s bombing was linked to the slain general’s role in exposing an alleged plot by Syria to stoke violence in Lebanon. He did not directly accuse Syria, however.