Violence follows Beirut assassination

BEIRUT (AP) — The funeral for Lebanon’s slain intelligence chief descended into chaos Sunday as soldiers fired tear gas at protesters who tried to storm the government palace, directing their rage at a leadership they consider puppets of a murderous Syrian regime.

The assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in a massive car bomb Friday threatens to shatter the fragile political balance in Lebanon, a country plagued by decades of strife — much of it linked to political and military domination by Damascus.

“The Sunni blood is boiling!” the crowd chanted as hundreds of people clashed with security forces. More than 100 protesters broke through a police cordon of concertina wire and metal gates, putting them within 50 yards of the entrance to the palace.

Authorities responded with tear gas and several officers fired machine guns and rifles in the air. One plain clothes guard pulled a pistol from his belt and fired over protesters’ heads. Then a roar of automatic gunfire erupted, sending the protesters scattering for cover.

It was unclear if the guards fired live bullets or blanks, but no protesters were reported injured by gunfire. Several were overcome by tear gas, and the government’s media office said 15 guards were injured.

Many fear the crisis could lead to the kind of street protests and violence that have been the scourge of this Arab country of 4 million people for years, including a devastating 1975-1990 civil war and sectarian battles between Sunnis and Shiites in 2008.

Al-Hassan, 47, was a powerful opponent of Syria in Lebanon. He headed an investigation over the summer that led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Syria’s most loyal allies in Lebanon.

He also led the inquiry that implicated Syria and Hezbollah in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Al-Hassan was buried near Hariri in Beirut’s central Martyrs Square, where thousands of people gathered earlier Sunday for the funeral. TV footage showed al-Hassan’s wife Anna, his young sons Majd and Mazen, and his parents shedding tears near his coffin.

Friday’s killing also exacerbated sectarian tensions, which already were enflamed over the crisis in Syria. Many of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims have backed Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels, while Shiite Muslims have tended to back Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was likely that Assad’s government had a hand in Friday’s assassination. Fabius told Europe-1 radio that while it was not fully clear who was behind the attack, it was “probable” that Syria played a role.

In the wake of Friday’s killing, dozens of anti-Syria protesters erected tents in central Beirut, saying they would not leave until Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government resigns. Mikati’s government is dominated by Hezbollah and its allies.

On Sunday, thousands of people mourned al-Hassan in a subdued gathering in downtown Beirut.

But the mood quickly changed: A Sunni cleric, Osama Rifai, gave a fiery speech, telling the crowd to “take out their swords” and not “be like women.”

The comments were carried live on TV, and more than 1,000 people marched the quarter mile from the funeral site to the stately, hilltop government palace. Several hundred clashed with security forces, first tearing down metal barricades and hitting the guards with the sticks from their flags and placards.

After about an hour of clashes, more guards arrived, along with scores of commandos in helmets and camouflage, carrying long sticks. Standing shoulder to shoulder across the road, they blocked the protesters from advancing further.

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