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 were eventually swollen 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 a 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.
Just as many Lebanese saw Syria’s hand in Hariri’s death, so do many suspect the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the murder of Hassan. 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 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 ever be identified or punished.
Sunday’s disturbances took place around Martyr’s Square in central Beirut, an area that has been largely reconstructed after extensive damage during a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. The tension 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.
Following 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.