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Clashes in Beirut follow funeral for slain police official

October 21, 2012 |  8:57 am

Clashes in Beirut follow funeral for slain police official
BEIRUT -- A politically charged funeral for a slain police intelligence chief devolved into clashes in the heart of the Lebanese capital Sunday as angry mourners tried to storm the prime minister’s office but were pushed back by troops.

Soldiers used tear gas and fired shots in the air to disperse the enraged crowd of several hundred -- mostly young men, some wielding sticks.

The clashes followed a somber and peaceful funeral for Gen. Wissam Hassan, the police intelligence chief assassinated Friday in a car bomb in a upscale Beirut neighborhood.

Authorities initially said eight people were killed in Friday's explosion, but have since reduced the death toll to three, including the police official and a bodyguard.

The car bombing — the first significant attack in the Lebanese capital in four years — has outraged opponents of Lebanon’s government and resulted in calls for the nation's ruling coalition to resign. The incident has also raised tensions in a nation with deep religious and political divides and a history of sectarian conflict.

Many Lebanese blame the Syrian government for Friday's car bombing. Syria has denied responsibility and condemned the attack. No evidence has emerged publicly linking Syria to the bombing. There is widespread skepticism here that the killers will ever be identified or punished.

Military reinforcements in armored vehicles rumbled to the scene of the clashes Sunday in central Beirut, an area that has been largely reconstructed after extensive damage during a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. Pricey boutiques and trendy cafes now line streets that had been reduced to rubble during the civil war.

After several thrusts by the enraged crowd, the protesters retreated into a standoff with troops protecting the prime minister’s office and other government facilities.

The tension ebbed after about an hour of sporadic clashes. The protesters pulled back and the number of security forces at the scene eventually outnumbered crowds on the streets. A semblance of order returned.

There was no immediate official word on injuries. Protesters appeared to carry at least one injured person from the scene.

The protesters who clashed with authorities were affiliated with the March 14 opposition bloc, a mostly Sunni Muslim faction that has demanded the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati. He heads a government dominated by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militant group and close ally of the Syrian government. Some opposition leaders had called for a "day of wrath" Sunday against Syria.

As the clashes unfolded, some protesters shouted anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah slogans. A few also hoisted flags of the Syrian rebel forces seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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--Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Lebanese security forces aim their weapons during clashes in Beirut on Sunday after the funeral of Gen. Wissam Hassan, who was assassinated Friday in a car bombing. Credit: Hussein Malla / Associated Press

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