Lebanon assassination stokes regional crisis

Assassination of spy chief who stood up to meddling neighbour Syria leaves his fractured country a step closer to descending into hell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 3:16am

Lebanon's prime minister yesterday linked Friday's massive car bomb that ripped through Beirut to the civil war in neighbouring Syria, in the latest signal that the crisis is further inflaming an already tense region.

Friday's blast in the heart of Beirut's Christian area killed eight people, including the country's intelligence chief, Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan.

The bombing drew condemnation from abroad, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling it a "dangerous sign that there are those who … seek to undermine Lebanon's stability".

The government declared a national day of mourning yesterday, but protesters took to the streets burning tyres and setting up roadblocks expressing their anger over the bomb.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the explosion was linked to al-Hassan's recent investigation, in which he exposed an alleged plot by Syria to unleash a campaign of bombings and assassinations to sow chaos in Lebanon.

"I don't want to prejudge … but we cannot separate yesterday's crime from the revelation of the explosions that could have happened," Mikati said.

Lebanon's fractious politics are closely entwined with Syria's. The countries share a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, and Lebanon has been caught in the fallout from the war pitting Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces against rebels seeking to overthrow the regime.

Lebanon's opposition is anti-Syrian, while the prime minister and much of the government are seen as pro-Syrian.

Al-Hassan's probe over the summer led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Assad's most loyal allies in Lebanon. Samaha, who is in custody, is accused of plotting attacks to spread sectarian violence at Syria's behest.

The head of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, Major-General Ashraf Rifi, described Hassan's death as a "huge blow" and warned of further attacks.

The opposition has called for the government to step down.

Mikati said he had offered to resign but the president asked him not to plunge the country into more uncertainty. Mikati said he had suggested a national unity government but President Michel Suleiman had asked for some time to hold discussions with political leaders. "Today, I am saying more and more that there should be a national consensus government," Mikati said. "The cabinet will eventually resign, but at the moment ... I call on the Lebanese to unite."

In the eastern town of Marj, angry protesters tried to storm an office of the pro-Syrian Itihad group, but Lebanese soldiers pushed them away, injuring five protesters, officials said. They added that dozens of people who marched in protest in the border town of Moqueibleh came under fire from the Syrian side of the border, forcing them to disperse.

The highway linking central Beirut with the city's international airport was closed, as was the highway linking the capital with Syria.

Additional reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse