Lebanon’s army said on Monday the nation faced a critical phase after the assassination of a senior intelligence officer prompted violent protests across the country.
“We call on all political leaders to be cautious when expressing their stances and opinions,” said a statement by the army, adding that it would take “decisive measures” to prevent chaos in areas of high tension.
“Recent developments prove decidedly that the country is going through a critical time, and the level of tension in some areas has reached unprecedented levels,” it said.
Meanwhile, five people were wounded by gunfire in southern Beirut on Monday, security and medical sources said, after a night of tension following the funeral of an intelligence official killed by a car bomb.
The sources said the shooting occurred on the edge of Tariq al-Jadida, a Sunni Muslim district which neighbors Shiite suburbs in the south of the Lebanese capital. The army closed several roads in the area, local media said.
Residents had earlier reported heavy overnight gunfire around Tariq al-Jadida between gunmen armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
The state funeral of an assassinated Lebanese intelligence chief ended in violence on Sunday when angry mourners broke away and tried to storm the offices of Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Lebanese police clashed with protesters trying to storm the prime minister’s office.
Sunday’s clashes fed into a growing political crisis in Lebanon linked to the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Opposition leaders and their supporters accuse Syria of being behind the car bombing that killed Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan on Friday. They say Mikati is too close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese ally Hezbollah, which is part of Mikati’s government.
Thousands turned out in downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square for Hassan’s funeral, which also served as a political rally. The violence erupted after an opposition leader demanded that Mikati step down to pave the way for talks on the crisis, according to Reuters.
A group marched to the prime minister’s office, then overturned barriers, pulled apart barbed wire coils and threw steel rods, stones and bottle at soldiers and police.
Security forces responded by shooting into air and firing teargas, forcing the protesters to scatter.
On Sunday night, gunmen armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades exchanged fire in southern districts of Beirut, security sources said, and residents could hear the sound of ambulance sirens.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel called Sunday’s events “an emotional reaction” to Friday’s assassination of Brig. Gen. Hassan, who was killed by a car bomb in the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood of Beirut.
“This is an emotional reaction to the martyrdom [of Hassan] ... God willing tomorrow [Monday] everything will be over,” he was quoted as saying by the The Daily Star.
Charbel said that the ISF and the Lebanese Army are taking the appropriate measures to address the situation.
“They are arresting anyone carrying arms and referring them to the judiciary, and they are re-opening all blocked roads,” Charbel said.
Meanwhile, gunmen in Tripoli opened fire in the air after Akkar Mufti Sheikh Ossama Rifai delivered a fiery speech during Hassan’s funeral, killing a 15-year-old resident of Jabal Mohsen, Rola Fakhro, the Lebanese daily reported.
This sparked armed clashes between supporters of Assad in Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, whose residents tend to support the uprising against Assad.
According to The Daily Star, 9-year-old Jana Kamaleddine of Riva was killed during the exchange of gunfire and RPGs, as was Jabal Mohsen resident Adnan Dawoud. Nayef Khalil, a Palestinian refugee from the outskirts of the Beddawi refugee camp, was wounded. Clashes intensified and bullets reached the highway that connects Tripoli to Akkar.
Tripoli was the scene of previous clashes between Sunnis and Alawites sympathetic to different sides in the Syria war.
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 said on the Future Television channel.
The violence broke out after Fouad al-Siniora, a former prime minister, said the opposition rejected any dialogue to overcome the political crisis caused by Hassan's killing 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.
Despite calls for him to quit, Mikati has said he will stay on, at President Michel Sleiman’s request, to avoid a “political vacuum” in volatile Lebanon, according to AFP.
The opposition has widely blamed Assad for Friday’s attack in the mostly Christian district of Ashrafieh.
It also holds him responsible for the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, killed in a huge Beirut blast.
A banner on Sunday proclaimed “Two states, one revolution,” an allusion to the 19-month rebellion in Syria that has cost more than 34,000 lives.
Elsewhere, young men angered by Hassan’s murder, some of them armed, cut off roads in the central Bekaa valley and along the coastal highway to south Lebanon.
Earlier, Martyrs’ Square was dotted with huge billboards praising Hassan and calling him “a martyr for truth and justice.”
Many people carried the flags of Lebanon and Hariri’s Future movement, while some 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.”
Mikati has linked Hassan’s murder to evidence implicating former minister Michel Samaha, arrested in August.
Samaha is suspected of planning attacks to provoke sectarian strife in Lebanon at Syria’s behest. The ISF played a key role in that investigation.
The United States, which has condemned Hassan’s assassination, on Sunday offered its help in the search for his killers.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone with Mikati, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.