Lebanese police fired in the air and used tear gas on Sunday to repel protesters trying to storm the premier’s office, amid calls for him to quit after a top security official was killed by a car bomb blamed on Syria.
The funeral of General Wissam al-Hassan had been billed as a protest against Syrian meddling in Lebanon, but quickly turned into equal, if not greater, anger at Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his government.
Just minutes after the nearby ceremony, “young people headed towards the building in the city center, but security forces blocked them by firing into the air and using tear gas,” a policeman told AFP.
The group was estimated at a couple of hundred people.
During funeral orations for the slain police intelligence chief, angry former premier Fuad Siniora called on Mikati to resign, adding his voice to many others since Hassan and two others were killed and 126 wounded on Friday.
Siniora, parliamentary chief for opposition leader and ex-premier Saad Hariri, said the “government is responsible for the crime that killed Wissam and his chauffeur. That is why he must go.”
“Mikati, you cannot stay in your post to cover up this crime,” he said. “If you stay, it means you agree with what happened and what will happen.”
Despite calls for him to step down, Mikati said after an emergency cabinet meeting he had agreed to stay in his post at the request of President Michel Sleiman to avoid a “political vacuum” in volatile Lebanon.
Opposition accuses Assad
The opposition has widely accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of being behind the attack, as it did in 2005 when Hariri’s ex-premier father Rafiq was killed in a huge Beirut blast.
In a show of defiance against Assad, a banner proclaimed “Two states, one revolution,” an allusion to the 19-month rebellion in Syria that has cost more than 34,000 lives.
“Bashar out of the Serai,” proclaimed another, referring to the seat of government.
After a solemn military farewell at the headquarters of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the body of Sunni Muslim General Hassan, 47, was transported to Martyrs Square along with that of his chauffeur.
They and a third person were killed and 126 people wounded when the powerful bomb exploded on Friday in the upmarket mostly Christian district of Ashrafieh.
After the funeral at the massive Al-Amine Mosque, Hassan was to be buried in the mausoleum of his mentor, former premier Rafiq Hariri.
It was Hariri’s death, in which a Hassan-led probe pointed the finger at Damascus, that sparked an outcry which forced Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon after three decades of occupation.
‘A martyr for truth and justice’
Ahmad Fatfat, an MP in the bloc of Hariri’s son Saad, said earlier “Syrians left Lebanon then, and we want to prevent them for good from returning; we also want the Iranians out,” he said, referring to Assad’s chief regional ally.
He also accused the government and the Shiite movement Hezbollah, which dominates it, of wanting to “bring Bashar al-Assad back to Lebanon.”
Martyrs Square was dotted with huge billboards of a saluting Hassan and the slogan “A martyr for truth and justice.”
Many people carried the flags variously of Lebanon, the Future movement, part of the March 14 anti-Assad coalition, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party. Others waved the Syrian revolutionary flag.
Tamam Ali, a 27-year-old Future activist, warned: “It’s not just today. We were here yesterday and we’ll be here tomorrow and in the future.
“First of all, we want the fall of this government. We want the Syrian embassy kicked out and we want an end to Hezbollah’s power of arms.”
Abu Jawdeh, a 42-year-old surgeon carrying the flag of the Christian party, the Lebanese Forces, used a powerful surgical metaphor regarding Hezbollah, an ally of both Syria and Iran.
“You can’t expect Hezbollah to give up easily or hand over its weapons peacefully. But clearly, Lebanon is going into a phase similar to open-heart surgery. In order to fix the heart, you need to break the ribs.”
Hezbollah’s militia never disarmed after the devastating 1975-90 civil war and is Lebanon's most powerful armed force.
March 14 coalition leader Saad Hariri, who lives abroad for security reasons, had called for a mass turnout at the funeral.
Mikati linked Hassan’s murder to the August arrest of Lebanese former minister Michel Samaha, who is suspected of planning attacks to provoke sectarian strife in Lebanon at Syria’s behest.
“After the discovery of explosives, logic dictates that the two cases are related,” he said, without mentioning Syria by name.
During the ceremony at ISF headquarters, President Sleiman urged the judiciary to expedite pressing formal charges against Samaha.
Under Hassan’s direction, the ISF played a central role in the arrest of Samaha at his home, where police found explosives investigators allege were to be used against religious and political figures suspected of backing the Syrian opposition.
Prominent Christian politician and Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun warned against using the incident for political gain.
“We do not want for a crime that targeted all Lebanese to be turned into discord among Lebanese and inter-confessional dissension,” he told journalists.
No one has ever been tried for Hariri’s murder, but a U.N.-backed tribunal indicted four members of Hezbollah who are still at large.