A top Lebanese security official who was investigating Syrian plans to carry out attacks in the country was killed in an explosion in Beirut that left at least eight people dead, the official National News Agency said.
Wissam al-Hassan, who headed the information branch of the Internal Security Forces, was driving in a car with a bodyguard in the vicinity of the blast scene, LBC television said.
Al-Hassan was investigating explosions blamed on Syria by the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, including the killing of former premier Rafik Hariri. He was instrumental in the probe that led to the August arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been charged with plotting to assassinate religious and political figures. More than 20 bombs found with Samaha were prepared by Syrian security, NNA said at the time.
“The death of Wissam al-Hassan is revenge by Syria and Iran for his audacity in embarrassing them,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar. “There’s no doubt that these are cards that the Syrian regime has, and they are beginning to use them.”
Tensions have been rising in Lebanon between supporters and opponents of Assad, and clashes between them have provoked concern that the civil war in Syria may spill over into the neighboring country.
Al-Hassan was killed by a booby-trapped car that exploded in a narrow street off Sassine Square in the mainly Christian Ashrafiyyeh district. The national agency said it was not far from an office of the Phalange Party, which is part of the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition.
It was the deadliest bombing in Lebanon in at least four years. In the aftermath, firefighters put out blazes in damaged buildings, local television footage showed, as rescuers carried away victims and people came looking for loved ones. A man with a bloodied top was seen walking over the rubble while another man watched the carnage with blood streaming down his face.
Leading politicians including Saad Hariri, son of the murdered ex-premier, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt were quick to accuse Syria of carrying out today’s killing. Jumblatt told Future TV that Assad’s government was taking revenge for the failure of the Samaha plot. Hariri told the same channel that he blamed Assad.
“This is one of a series of attacks targeting March 14 activists,” Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, whose party is a member of the March 14 coalition, told reporters at the scene. Lawmaker Nadeem Gemayel, whose father President-elect Bashir Gemayel was killed in an explosion at the Phalange office in 1982, told LBC that the attack carried the “print” of Syrian involvement.
Residents of several Sunni Muslim areas have closed roads with burning tires to protest al-Hassan’s death, the NNA said.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the government is on alert and plans to pursue the perpetrators, according to an emailed statement sent by his office. Mikati also declared tomorrow a day of mourning, Al Jazeera television said.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi denounced the explosion, calling it a “cowardly, terrorist act,” according to state-run Sana news agency.
Hospitals issued appeals for urgent blood donations and Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, who went to the scene, urged hospitals to receive blast victims. State Prosecutor Hatem Madi told LBC that the bomb had left a crater more than a meter (yard) deep.
Sami Nader, professor of international relations at Beirut’s St. Joseph University, said today’s blast “followed the same strategy that Michel Samaha was in charge of implementing.”
“Syria’s plan is to export its crisis in a way to tell the international community that they have been the guardians of security and stability and if the regime goes the region will collapse into chaos,” he said.