BEIRUT -- A top Lebanese intelligence official was among the eight people killed by a car bomb that exploded Friday in a bustling central district of the Lebanese capital -- igniting fears that spillover violence from neighboring Syria may inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
Hours after the midafternoon blast, which also left scores injured, authorities confirmed to the press that the dead included Col. Wissam al-Hassan, intelligence chief for the Internal Security Forces. Hassan was allied with a political bloc that is a fierce opponent of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
News of Hassan’s killing immediately signaled that the blast was a well-planned, professional assassination -- not a random bombing or a “message” attack, as some had initially speculated.
His killing signals a potentially perilous moment for Lebanon, with its weak central government and deep sectarian fissures. Many feared the attack could trigger new violence across Lebanon's sectarian fault line.
Lebanese protesting the attack took to the streets of several areas, burning tires and blocking roads. Gunfire was reported in the flashpoint northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, site of frequent clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Assad.
Hassan was a loyalist of Lebanon’s adamantly anti-Assad “March 14” coalition, a leading Sunni Muslim-led faction said to have close ties to Washington. The March 14 grouping stands in opposition to the current Lebanese government, which is backed by Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and loyal ally of Assad. Leaders of March 14 have publicly accused Assad of trying to sow violence in Lebanon in a bid to shift attention away from his military campaign against armed opponents inside Syria.
Rumors swirled Friday that Hassan worked closely with the Syrian opposition, which has a strong presence in Lebanon. But there was no immediate confirmation that Hassan had any direct role with the Syrian armed groups seeking to oust Assad.
The assassinated security official did play a central role in the incendiary, Syria-linked case of former Lebanese Information Minister Michel Samaha. The former Lebanese parliamentarian was arrested in August on charges of colluding with Syria to conduct terror attacks in Lebanon. Samaha is reported to have a close personal relationship with Syrian President Assad. Allies of Samaha condemned the arrest as political in nature.
In his security role, Hassan also gave evidence to a tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed in a massive 2005 truck bombing in Beirut. Last year, the tribunal indicted four Hezbollah operatives in Hariri’s killing. Hezbollah and its Syrian allies have denied any involvement in the killing of the prime minister and said evidence against its members was fabricated.
Following Friday’s explosion, several opposition politicians in Lebanon immediately blamed Syria, and the Lebanese government vowed a thorough investigation. But many Lebanese were skeptical that the killers would ever be brought to justice in a nation where so many political killings have never been resolved.
Friday’s explosion stunned the Lebanese capital, which witnessed a bloody civil war that ended in 1990, and immediately stoked new fears that the attack could be linked to the ongoing violence in neighboring Syria. Beirut has mostly been peaceful in recent years and massive redevelopment projects are underway to reconstruct areas destroyed in the civil war.
There has been some spillover violence into Lebanon, but such incidents have mostly been limited to Lebanese-Syrian border areas, where shelling, kidnappings and gunfights have occurred, and to Tripoli.
Lebanon's punishing, sectarian-tinged civil war lasted for 15 years until a peace plan was put into place. Syrian troops remained in Lebanon until 2005, when outrage about the assassination of Hariri prompted Syria to withdraw its forces after almost 30 years. But Syria retains many supporters in Lebanon and Syrian secret police are widely believed to operate in the country.
Lebanon's government remains a fragile mixture of often rival groups linked to religious and political factions. Still, the country has been relatively stable and last month hosted a visit from Pope Benedict XVI, an event that went off without incident and drew massive crowds.
Video from the scene of Friday’s bombing showed a panorama of chaos, as the injured were led away and people tried to determine the fate of loved ones. In one clip, a man carried a young girl covered in blood away from the scene.
Black smoke hung over the district and thick flames arose from the site of the explosion. Firefighters with hoses tried to douse the blaze. Police cordoned off the area, making access difficult for journalists.
Damaged cars and blown-out storefronts were evident in the video from the scene, near Sassine Square in the Achrafiyeh district, the city’s signature Christian neighborhood. Lebanese Christians, like other Lebanese groups, have been split into camps opposing and supporting the government of Syrian President Assad.
Sassine square is the site of many cafes, shops and residential buildings, and is a popular meeting spot. The blast occurred at a time of day when the zone was filled with pedestrians, motorists and students leaving their schools.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Sharbel, surrounded by Lebanese policemen, visits the scene where a car bomb exploded in the Achrafiyeh district in Beirut on Friday. Credit: Nabil Mounzer/ EPA