Lebanese troops reinforced road junctions and official buildings in Beirut on Saturday and the government met to mull a response to the car bomb killing of a senior intelligence official opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Brigadier-General Wissam al-Hassan, who led an investigation that implicated Syria and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005, and seven other people were killed by the explosion in a central district of the capital on Friday afternoon.
Lebanese politicians accused Assad of being behind the attack, which deepened fears that the sectarian-tinged civil war in neighboring Syria was being carried into Lebanon.
Hassan, a Sunni Muslim, had helped uncover a bomb plot that led to the arrest and indictment in August of a pro-Assad former Lebanese minister – a setback for Syrian influence in Lebanon.
Sunni Muslims took to the streets and burned tires across Lebanon over Friday night and Saturday morning to protest against the bombing, which revived memories of the carnage of Lebanon’s own civil war. The blast also wounded about 80 people.
Protesters blocked roads to the international airport and in the northern, mostly-Sunni city of Tripoli. Rallies were also held and roads closed in the eastern Bekaa Valley and in the southern town of Sidon.
At a roadblock in south Beirut, a dozen unidentified gunmen in civilian clothes were seen standing next to the burning tires.
Soldiers and police guarded street corners in Beirut’s Ashrafiyeh, the mainly Christian district where the bomb exploded during rush hour, and at Martyrs’ Square in the centre.
Lebanon’s mufti, the senior Sunni religious figure, announced three days of mourning for Hassan.
The Beirut Star newspaper said the perpetrators clearly aimed to force Lebanon into a new round of chaotic violence.
“If the goal was to divert attention from the events in Syria, then people should remember this well and head off any attempt to take Lebanon further into tension and civil strife,” it said.
The late Hariri’s son, Saad al-Hariri, accused Syria’s Assad of being behind the bombing. Lebanon’s opposition March 14 bloc called on Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, which includes ministers from Hezbollah, to resign.
The head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, Major-General Ashraf Rifi, described Hassan’s death as a “huge blow” and warned that further attacks were likely.
“We’ve lost a central security pillar,” he told Future Television. “Without a doubt, we have more sacrifices coming in the future. We know that, but we will not be broken.”
More than 30,000 people have been killed in Syria since a Sunni-led popular uprising against Assad, a member of the Shi’ite-linked Alawite sect, broke out 19 months ago.
International powers fear the conflict could inflame rivalries across the region as it intensifies.
Lebanon’s religious communities are divided between those supporting Assad and those backing the rebels and the country had already felt the heat prior to Friday’s bombing.
Sunnis and Alawites have clashed in Tripoli while the northern end of the Bekaa Valley, which borders Syria, has suffered from shelling and incursions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, whose country is a powerful backer of Assad and Hezbollah, condemned the bombing and said he planned to visit Beirut on Saturday.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry, in a statement on its website, suggested Israel was to blame for the attack. A senior Israeli official dismissed the suggestion as “beyond pathetic”.
Hassan, who had returned to Lebanon on Thursday night from Germany, had helped uncover many assassination attempts against anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon. He himself escaped several attempts on his life.
Two Syrian officers, including General Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s national security bureau, were indicted along with Lebanon’s former information minister Michel Samaha in August over a plot allegedly aimed at stoking violence in Lebanon.
The indictments were an unprecedented move against its more powerful neighbor, a dominant player in Lebanese affairs for decades. Syria sided with different factions during the 1975-1990 civil war and deployed troops in Beirut who stayed until 2005.
As well as being the brains behind the Samaha investigation, Hassan led the investigation into Rafik Hariri’s murder seven years ago and uncovered evidence that implicated Syria and Hezbollah – a charge they both deny. An international tribunal accused several Hezbollah members of involvement in the murder.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose party still formally supports Mikati’s government although he is bitterly critical of Assad and Hezbollah, said Hassan’s death left Lebanon unsafe.
“He was our protector. This is a harsh blow but we will not be scared and we should not accuse anyone inside Lebanon so we don’t give Bashar (al-Assad) an excuse to seize the country,” he said.
Despite the accusations from Lebanese politicians, both the Assad government and Hezbollah condemned the bombing. Syria’s information minister called it a “terrorist act”.
The bombing also heightened concern among Western powers – who have strongly criticized Assad and called on him to quit – that the Syria war could ignite the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Hassan’s killing was “a dangerous sign that there are those who continue to seek to undermine Lebanon’s stability”.
French President Francois Hollande urged Lebanese politicians to stay united and prevent attempts to destabilize the country. The Vatican and the European Union also condemned the attack.
Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East specialist at Boston University, said it was too early to say who carried out the bombing.
“However, there is no doubt that al Hassan’s death will bring smiles to the face of Bashar al-Assad and his cohorts,” he wrote in a commentary.