Supporters of Lebanon’s opposition March 14 coalition clashed with police following the funeral of an assassinated security official as they held a “Day of Rage” protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hundreds headed toward the Grand Serail, headquarters of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whom the group has blamed for the Oct. 19 bombing that killed Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan. They pelted police with stones, spurring security forces to fire into the air to disperse the crowd.
Protesters turned violent after a top March 14 politician, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, demanded that Mikati step down. Mikati’s Cabinet is backed by the Shiite Muslim militant Hezbollah group, an Assad ally and the main bloc in the pro-Syria March 8 coalition.
“Leave, Mr. Prime Minister, otherwise you’ll be accused of covering up for the criminals,” Siniora told the cheering crowds. “The Lebanese will no longer accept the continuation of the Cabinet of assassination.”
Al-Hassan, who headed the information branch of the Internal Security Forces, had investigated several bombings and plots that the March 14 group blamed on the Syrian regime. Three people died and 126 were injured in the explosion that killed him, according to a final casualty count carried by Lebanon’s official National News Agency.
The unrest has raised concerns about a possible spillover of the conflict in neighboring Syria. March 14 supporters gathered at the rally’s venue in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, waving Lebanon’s flag and that of the Syrian rebels fighting Assad’s government.
“We’re expressing our support for the Syrian people and opposition to Bashar,” said Ali Majzoub, 16, holding the rebel Syrian flag.
“From the rebels in Syria to Wissam al-Hassan, one murderer, one weapon,” read a banner raised at the scene.
The rally took place at the scene of demonstrations that followed the 2005 assassination of Sunni Muslim former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, an act that March 14 officials also have blamed on Syria. Public anger over Hariri’s killing forced pro-Syria Prime Minister Omar Karami to step down 14 days later and Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence.
The crowds this time were a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of supporters who showed up for the Hariri funeral.
March 14 politicians including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafiq’s son, were quick to accuse Syria of carrying out al-Hassan’s assassination.
The bombing has exacerbated tensions simmering in Lebanon since the uprising against Assad began in Syria in March 2011. Lebanon is divided into pro-and anti-Assad groups that have fought intermittently in the northern city of Tripoli and Beirut. A clash in Tripoli hours after al-Hassan’s death left a Sunni Muslim cleric dead. Six others have been injured since then, NNA said.
Some of the protesters today carried the blue flag of Hariri’s Future Movement and expressed anger at what they see as a systematic targeting of Sunni Muslims, underlining the sectarian tensions in the country.
“I am a Sunni and we are being targeted because we’re saying ‘no’ to Syria,” said Aya Rifai, a 20-year-old student. “I’m here to say we’ve had enough.”
Hariri urged supporters yesterday to join the rally to honor al-Hassan as a man “who protected Lebanon from dangers and exposed himself to an explosion so that you won’t explode and so Lebanon won’t explode.”
Al-Hassan’s investigations included the 2005 Hariri assassination. The security official also was instrumental in the probe that led to the arrest in August of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, an Assad ally who has been charged with plotting to assassinate religious and political figures. More than 20 bombs found with Samaha were prepared by Syrian security agents, NNA said at the time.
Mikati said yesterday that al-Hassan’s assassination was linked to his exposure of the Samaha plot. He said that he had offered to resign so that a national unity government could be formed in the aftermath of the bombing. President Michel Suleiman urged him to stay on while Suleiman consults the country’s top officials about the attack and so the country won’t slip into a political vacuum, Mikati said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Mikati today to offer condolences. She “emphasized the United States’ firm commitment to Lebanon’s stability, independence, sovereignty and security,” according to an e-mailed statement from spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. Clinton and Mikati “agreed that the U.S. would provide assistance in the investigation of the bombing,” according to the statement.