Angry crowd demands Lebanon PM Mikati step down after slain spy chief's funeral

Angry mob demands PM Mikati step down after assassination blamed on his 'crony' Syria

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 10:13am

Violence erupted in downtown Beirut yesterday as protesters tried to storm the offices of Prime Minister Najib Mikati after the funeral of an assassinated intelligence chief whose death they blame on Syria.

Security forces shot into the air and police fired tear gas to repulse the hundreds of protesters who overturned barriers and threw stones and steel rods.

The clashes fed into a growing political crisis in Lebanon linked to the civil war in neighbouring Syria.

An angry crowd had marched on the prime minister's office after politicians at the funeral of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, who was killed by a car bomb on Friday, called on Mikati to resign over the killing.

The opposition and its supporters believe Mikati is too close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese ally Hezbollah, which is part of Mikati's government.

Many of the protesters waved flags from the anti-Syrian opposition Future Movement - a mainly Sunni Muslim party - and Christian Lebanese Forces, as well as black Islamist flags.

They scattered after the security forces' action and there were no immediate reports of any casualties other than two people fainting.

Opposition leader Saad al-Hariri urged supporters to refrain from any more violence.

"We want peace, the government should fall but we want that in a peaceful way. I call on all those who are in the streets to pull back," Hariri told supporters after the attack.

Hassan, 47, was a Sunni Muslim and senior intelligence official who had helped uncover a bomb plot that led to the arrest and indictment in August of a pro-Damascus former Lebanese minister.

Thousands of people filled central Martyrs' Square for Hassan's funeral ceremony, accusing Syria of involvement in the killing and calling for Mikati to quit.

One banner read "Go, go Najib", echoing the slogans of the Arab Spring.

The violence broke out after Fouad al-Siniora, a former prime minister, said in a speech that the opposition rejected any dialogue to overcome the political crisis caused by the assassination unless the government first resigned. "No talks before the government leaves, no dialogue over the blood of our martyrs," Siniora said to roars of approval from the crowd.

At the start of the funeral, senior politicians and the military and security top brass turned out at the Internal Security Force headquarters for a ceremony held with full military honours and broadcast live on national television.

Hassan's wife and two sons, the youngest weeping, listened as he was eulogised by the head of police, Ashraf Rifi, and President Michel Suleiman.

Suleiman said the government and people must work "shoulder to shoulder" to overcome the challenges posed by the killing. "I tell the judiciary do not hesitate, the people are with you, and I tell the security be firm, the people are with you, with you. And I tell the politicians and the government do not provide cover to the perpetrator."

In keeping with custom for state funerals, church bells pealed as police officers carried the flag-draped coffins of Hassan and his bodyguard to the mosque on Martyr's Square through chanting crowds. Muslim prayers were broadcast by loudspeaker from the mosque.