Beirut: Lebanese security forces unleashed a barrage of gunfire and tear gas in central Beirut on Sunday to disperse hundreds of protesters trying to storm the government headquarters after the funeral of a top Lebanese intelligence official killed by a car bomb.
The speedy ignition of the protests demonstrated the flammability of the country`s divisive and sectarian politics. The protesters blamed the assassination on the government of neighbouring Syria and consider Lebanon`s current government to be too close to that embattled regime.
Many also chanted against Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that dominates the government and serves as the Damascus regime`s closest Lebanese ally.
As the battle raged, with protesters and security personnel pelting each other with hunks of concrete, metal bars and tear gas canisters, former prime minister Fuad Saniora appealed for calm.
"The use of violence is unacceptable and does not represent the image that we want," Saniora said in a televised address.
Even before Friday`s bombing, the civil war in Syria had set off violence in Lebanon and deepened tensions between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad`s regime. The assassination has laid bare how vulnerable Lebanon is to renewed strife, threatening to shatter a fragile political balance struck after decades of civil strife much of it linked to Syria.
Sunday’s clashes erupted after the funeral for Brig Gen Wissam al-Hassan, who was killed along with his bodyguard by a Beirut car bomb on Friday. Al-Hassan, 47, was a powerful opponent of Syria in Lebanon.
He was buried in Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut near former prime minister Rafik Hariri, another anti-Syrian politician who was assassinated by a truck bomb in 2005.
Syria denied any role in Hariri`s killing, but outrage in Lebanon expressed in massive street protests forced Damascus to withdraw its tens of thousands of troops from the country and end nearly 30 years of military and political domination of its smaller neighbour.
The scene at yesterday’s funeral was faintly reminiscent of the huge, anti-Syria gatherings in 2005. But the crowd was far smaller than after Hariri`s death.
More than 1,000 people walked about a quarter mile from the funeral site toward the stately, hilltop government headquarters. Only a few hundred clashed with the guards, tearing down metal barricades and hitting the guards with the sticks from their flags and placards.
The guards withdrew behind a tall barricade of concertina wire, which the protesters broke through, putting them within 50 meters of government headquarters. A few guards fired shots and one plainclothes officer pulled a pistol from his belt and fired over the protesters` heads.