Lebanon on a knife-edge: Anti-Syrian tensions rising
Tensions run high in Lebanon as the government declared an emergency meeting following a bomb attack that killed a top security official. Clashes and protests have been reported throughout the country amid opposition calls for the PM to resign.
Riots and protests continued into Saturday as thousands of people across Lebanon voiced their ire at the car bomb blast in Beirut on Friday that claimed the lives of eight people. Over a hundred people were also injured in the explosion that killed Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan.
Enraged citizens have blocked roads with burning tires as a sign of their protest, while clashes in the city of Tripoli close to the southern Syrian border fueled fears the Syria’s conflict is overflowing across the border.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati offered to step down amidst the fallout of Friday’s deadly attack, but President Michel Suleiman refused his resignation.
“He asked that I stay in place because it is not a personal issue but one of the national interest,” Mikati said.
Despite being part of an ostensibly pro-Syrian government, Mitkin joined the chorus of opposition calls linking Friday’s bombing to the civil war in neighboring Syria. The PM said on Saturday the assassination of police intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan was connected to his role in the August arrest of former minister Michel Samaha. Samaha had allegedly conspired to set off explosives all throughout Lebanon in a bid to destabilize the country. He was often accused of being “Syria’s man in Lebanon,” and was viewed as untouchable due to his connections in Damascus.
The secretary-general of Lebanese opposition group Future Movement, Ahmad Hariri, said that the attack had been masterminded by embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hariri also condemned Lebanon’s current PM Najib Mikati to resign immediately, saying that “he is personally responsible for the blood of General Wissam al-Hassan and the innocent.”
“We accuse Bashar al-Assad of the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, the guarantor of the security of the Lebanese,” Hariri told a Lebanese TV station.
Lebanese protesters burn tyres to block a road in the southern city of Sidon on October 20, 2012 during a protest against a bomb blast in the capital Beirut the day before (AFP Photo / Mahmoud Zayyat)
While former Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud told al-Jazeera that it was too early to ascertain who was behind the bombing.
“We have no indication whatsoever [of who is behind this]. We know this is a strong and sad message, and we know this could destabilize the whole country,” said Baroud.
The attack has come at a time of strong antagonism between pro-Syrian regime groups and anti-Assad factions in Lebanon. Many fear that the conflict in Syria will exacerbate sectarian divisions in neighboring Lebanon.
Rifts are growing steadily wider in Lebanese society as the countries Sunni Muslims get behind the rebels and the Shiites offer their support to President Assad.
A Lebanese protester throws clothes on a pile of burning tyres as demonstrators block a road in the southern city of Sidon on October 20, 2012 to protest against a bomb blast in the capital Beirut the day before (AFP Photo / Mahmoud Zayyat)
The security official who was assassinated was a Sunni Muslim who opposed Assad and the regime’s strongest ally in Lebanon, the Shiite group Hezbollah.
The blast struck the Ashrafiyeh district of Beirut, a majority Christian neighborhood of the Lebanese capital. An explosives-laden car was detonated in a grounded street at rush hour, injuring over 100 people and decimating surrounding buildings.
It was the first car bombing in Lebanon since four years ago, when Lebanon’s top anti-terrorism investigator was killed along with three others.
The UN has condemned the attack calling for a thorough investigation to find the perpetrators, while the US called the blast a “terrorist attack.”
Lebanese people take part in a candlelight vigil near the site of a car bomb blast in Beirut on October 19, 2012 (AFP Photo / Patrick Baz)
A Lebanese man burns tyres in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon to protest against the assasination of top intelligence official Wissam al-Hassan in a blast on October 19, 2012 (AFP Photo / Mahmoud Zayyat)