Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Gunfire after protests in Beirut

Members of Lebanese police intelligence division units carry the coffins of Brig Gen Wissam al-Hassan and his bodyguard (AP)

Lebanese security forces have unleashed a barrage of gunfire and tear gas in central Beirut 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. Mr Saniora said in a televised address: "The use of violence is unacceptable and does not represent the image that we want."

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 Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, who was killed along with his body guard by a Beirut car bomb on Friday. Brig Gen 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 also assassinated, in 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 the funeral was faintly reminiscent of the huge, anti-Syria gatherings in the same square in 2005, but the crowd was far smaller than those after Hariri's death. More than 1,000 people walked about a quarter mile from the funeral site towards the government headquarters.

But only a few hundred clashed with the guards, first 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 later broke through, putting them within 50 yards of the government headquarters.

A few guards fired shots and one plainclothes guard pulled a pistol from his belt and fired over the protesters' heads. Then a roar of automatic gunfire erupted, sending the protesters scattering for cover. It was unclear whether the guards fired in the air or shot blanks, but no protesters appeared to be injured.

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