Opposition coalition demands PM’s resignation over assassination but remains wary about plunging nation into crisis.
Thousands of mourners have gathered in central Beirut for the funeral of Lebanon’s intelligence chief who was assassinated in a car bombing on Friday.
Heavily armed troops and police set up road blocks and cordoned off Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square, boosting security in the capital as crowds descended for the public funeral on Sunday.
Soldiers brought the flag-draped coffins of Wissam al-Hassan and his bodyguard to the square for burial. Hassan, an anti-Syrian official, and the bodyguard were killed in a huge bomb blast that also killed a civilian woman.
The attack triggered violent protests and was seen as a sign that Lebanon is steadily getting drawn deeper into the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Mourners clad in black carried pictures of Hassan and chanted slogans against the Syrian regime in response to the attack that has been widely blamed on Syria.
Many waved the sky-blue flag of the opposition Future Party. Others carried Lebanon’s cedar tree national flag but Syrian rebel flags were also seen.
‘Brilliant intelligence officer’
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from the funeral, said most of the people there were “very sad and very angry” for the loss of Hassan.
“Everyone here feels as if it’s a personal loss, he was a man they could depend on for security,” she said.
|Demonstrators blocked a road in the southern city of Sidon on Saturday to protest against the bomb blast[AFP]|
“For them he was a hero, a brilliant intelligence officer, someone who had succeeded and uncovered many plots including spy networks for Israel, terrorist plots, and he played a key role with the international investigators to implicating members of the Hezbollah in the killing of the late Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.”
Hassan will be buried in Martyrs Square next to Rafik al-Hariri, who was killed in a car bombing seven years ago.
Lebanon’s opposition March 14 coalition had encouraged a massive turnout for the funeral, and for a “day of rage” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Much of Lebanon is divided between those that support Assad and those that back the rebels seeking to topple him in the country’s bloody 19-month conflict.
Dozens of anti-Syrian protesters erected eight tents near the Cabinet headquarters in central Beirut, saying they will stay until Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, which is dominated by the Shia movement Hezbollah and its allies, resigns.
Hezbollah is Syria’s most powerful ally in Lebanon, which for much of the past 30 years has lived under Syrian military
and political domination.
“The Syrian regime started a war against us and we will fight this battle until the end,” said protester Anthony Labaki, a member of the right-wing Phalange Party. He said the protesters will not leave the area until Mikati’s government resigns and those behind Hassan’s killing are uncovered.
Despite calls from the opposition for him to step down, Mikati said after an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday that he had agreed to stay in his post at the request of President Michel Sleiman to avoid a “political vacuum” in volatile Lebanon.
Protests erupted in several cities on Saturday. Demonstrators and armed men blocked roads with burning tyres in Beirut, while soldiers opened fire on a group who took over a road in the Bekaa Valley, wounding two people, witnesses said.
Hassan, intelligence chief of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), headed an investigation over the summer that led to the arrest of Michel Samaha, a former information minister and ally of Assad, accused of trying to help smuggle explosives into Lebanon.
Hassan had also led an investigation that implicated Syria and its principal Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, in the assassination of Hariri.
Friday’s blast, which wounded at least 80 people, drew condemnation from abroad, with Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, calling it a “dangerous sign that there are those who continue to seek to undermine Lebanon’s stability”.
France’s foreign minister said it was likely that Assad’s government had a hand in the assassination. Laurent 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.
“Everything suggests that it’s an extension of the Syrian tragedy,” he said.
Omran al-Zohbi, the Syrian information minister, condemned what he called a “terrorist, cowardly” attack. Such incidents were “unjustifiable wherever they occur,” he said.
However, both opposition leader Saad al-Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the influential Druze leader, accused Assad of being behind the bombing.
“We accuse Bashar al-Assad of the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, the guarantor of the security of the Lebanese,” Hariri said.