Lebanese call for huge anti-Syria demo at police chief's funeral

AFP , Sunday 21 Oct 2012

As the situation in Lebanon is simmering, opposition groups call for a huge anti-Syria demonstration at funeral of a top police intelligence chief killed in a car bombing in Beirut

Wissam Al-Hassan
Protestes march past a billboard depicting slain Gen. Wissam al-Hassan with Arabic that reads, "the martyr of commitment to state and law," in Martyrs' Square during a protest against the killing of the country's intelligence chief, al-Hassan and at least seven others in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. (Photo: AP)

Lebanon's opposition on Saturday called for a massive anti-Syria mobilisation for Sunday's funeral of a top police intelligence chief killed in a car bombing blamed on the Damascus regime.

General Wissam al-Hassan of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), a prominent figure opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, died in a car bombing on Friday, sparking a crisis that included calls for the government to quit.

But Prime Minister Najib Mikati, under intense political flak over the killing, said on Saturday he would stay on after the president said it would be in the national interest.

Mikati spoke after an emergency cabinet meeting discussed the Beirut bombing that killed at least eight people, according to a government source, and has been blamed on Assad.

But the Red Cross, which said scores were wounded, stressed that the final death toll could be revised downwards.

Mikati linked the murder to last month's discovery by security forces of attacks allegedly being planned by Michel Samaha, a pro-Damascus former minister, which were aimed at instigating sectarian strife in Lebanon.

"I cannot separate the plot uncovered last month and what happened yesterday... After the discovery of explosives, logic dictates that the two cases are related," he said, without mentioning Syria by name.

President Michel Sleiman echoed him, saying telling a cabinet meeting that the bombing targeted "the head of an efficient security agency who was able to dismantle several terrorist networks... and uncover others, the most important of which is linked to the explosives carried by Samaha from Syria."

Anti-Syria opposition chief Saad Hariri said: "Each of you is personally called on to attend (the funeral) of Wissam al-Hassan, who protected Lebanon from the plot of Bashar al-Assad and Ali Mamluk (head of Syrian intelligence)."

Thousands of people are expected in central Beirut for the funeral at the Al-Amine mosque at around 1300 GMT.

In Damascus itself, peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi pressed Syria for a truce to break the cycle of 19 months of bloodshed there.

Even as he met Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and opposition leaders tolerated by the regime, fighting raged in the key town of Maaret al-Numan which rebels took on October 9.

Lebanese opposition figures had demanded that Mikati and his government quit after the blast which killed Hassan, 47.

However, Mikati told reporters Sleiman had asked him to stay on.

"He asked that I stay in place because it is not a personal issue but one of the national interest," he said.

Amid scattered protests around Lebanon, Saturday was declared a day of mourning for Hassan, who was killed in Ashrafieh, an upmarket mainly Christian area.

Protesters, some burning tyres, blocked roads in Beirut, Sidon in the south, Tripoli in the north and the Bekaa Valley in the east.

In Tripoli overnight, firefights erupted after the office of pro-Hezbollah Sunni party Tawhid was attacked and a Sunni sheikh and party member was killed in crossfire, a security official said.

Investigators hunt for clues

Hassan, who investigated the assassination seven years ago of former premier Rafiq Hariri in a car bombing also blamed on Syria, will be buried alongside the grave of his mentor.

His wife and children flew back to Beirut from Paris where he had taken them for safety. His wife Anna was in tears at Beirut airport as she arrived with sons Mazen, 17, and Majed, 12.

ISF chief General Ashraf Rifi said the bomb "consisted of between 60 and 70 kilos of TNT."

The site, a mass of rubble and twisted metal, remained cordoned off as investigators sifted for clues.

Saturday's cabinet meeting discussed the fallout from the bombing, after key opposition groups called on the government to quit.

"The government must leave and we call on Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign immediately," Ahmad Hariri, secretary general of the Future movement, said late on Friday.

Hassan was close to Saad Hariri, himself a former premier who leads the major opposition March 14 coalition of which Future is a party.

In keeping with a complex power-sharing arrangement in multi-confessional Lebanon, the premier is always a Sunni Muslim. But parliament and the government are dominated by the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah, an Assad ally.

Hezbollah called the bombing "an attempt to destabilise Lebanon and national unity," while Syria condemned what it called a "terrorist, cowardly" attack.

But both Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the influential Druze leader, blamed Assad.

"We accuse Bashar al-Assad of the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, the guarantor of the security of the Lebanese," said Hariri.

Jumblatt told AFP "the Syrian regime is expert in political assassinations. Our response needs to be political. A president who burns Syria and is the executioner of Damascus does not care if Lebanon burns."

There have been repeated incidents in which the Syrian conflict has spilled over into its neighbour, and the bombing sparked fears that Lebanon would be sucked further into a conflict that has cost more than 34,000 lives.

Brahimi is hoping to secure a Syria ceasefire during the four-day Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday starting on October 26, which he believes could pave the way for more permanent peace initiatives.

The Syrian foreign ministry said Muallem discussed with Brahimi "a halt to the violence... in order to prepare for a global Syrian dialogue, free of any foreign intervention."

Brahimi is expected to meet Assad at a later date.

Damascus had said it is ready to discuss the truce plan with Brahimi, while the opposition says the regime must take the first step and halt its daily bombardments.

On the ground, rebels and regime forces remained locked in battle, with warplanes bombarding Maaret al-Numan again and clashes on a nearby highway, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Machinegun fire and explosions rang out from Wadi Deif base on the eastern outskirts of the town, while in Damascus province, a powerful blast rocked the town of Harasta.

The Observatory said at least 108 people were killed on Saturday.

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