Syria denounced at Beirut funeral rally for slain official

Thousands of people mourned an assassinated senior intelligence officer at his funeral on Sunday, accusing Syria of involvement in the killing and calling for Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati to quit.

Members of the Internal Security Forces lay the coffins of slain intelligence officer Wissam al-Hassan and his bodyguard Ahmed Sahyouni beside each other as (rear L-R) Lebanon’s police chief Ashraf Rifi, Minister of Information Walid Daouq and Lebanon’s Army Commander Jean Kahwaji pay their respects during an official ceremony to pay tribute to their deaths, at the Internal Security Force headquarters in Ashrafiyeh October 21, 2012.
REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Heavily armed troops and police stood guard as people flocked to Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut for the funeral ceremony.

Many waved the sky-blue flag of the Sunni-based opposition Future Party. Others carried Lebanon’s cedar tree national flag but Syrian rebel flags and black Islamist banners were also seen.

One banner read “Go, go Najib” echoing the slogans of the Arab Spring.

Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, 47, was killed by a powerful car bomb in Beirut’s Ashrafiyeh district on Friday. A Sunni Muslim close to the Hariri political clan, he had helped uncover a bomb plot that led to the arrest and indictment in August of a pro-Damascus former Lebanese minister.

He also led an investigation that implicated Syria and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.

Lebanese politicians have accused Syria’s leadership of having a role in Hassan’s killing, which deepened fears the civil war there is spreading across its borders.

Senior politicians and the military and security top brass turned out at the Internal Security Force headquarters for the start of the funeral, held with full military honors and broadcast live on national television.

Hassan’s wife and two sons, the youngest weeping, listened as he was eulogized by the head of police, Ashraf Rifi, and President Michel Suleiman.

“SHOULDER TO SHOULDER”

Suleiman said the government and people must work “shoulder to shoulder” to overcome the challenges posed by the killing.

“I tell the judiciary do not hesitate, the people are with you, and I tell the security be firm, the people are with you, with you. And I tell the politicians and the government do not provide cover to the perpetrator.”

In keeping with custom for state funerals, church bells pealed as police officers carried the flag-draped coffins of Hassan and his bodyguard to the mosque through chanting crowds. Moslem prayers were broadcast by loudspeaker from the mosque.

People at Martyrs’ Square said they saw Syria’s hand in the bombing.

“We blame Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria,” said Assmaa Diab, 14, from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, Hassan’s home town. She was in the square with her sister and father.

“He is responsible for everything – in the past, now, and if we don’t stand up to him, the future,” she said.

The prime minister was also a focus of their anger. Protesters said they wanted him to step down, saying he was too close to Shi’ite Hezbollah, who are part of his government, and to Assad.

“We are here to tell Mikati we don’t need him any more and to tell Hezbollah we don’t want any more of their games,” said Hamza Akhrass, a 22-year-old student who had come from south Lebanon for the funeral. “Mikati takes too much pressure for Syria.”

One banner read “People want the overthrow of Najib”.

Mikati said on Saturday he had offered to resign to make way for a government of national unity but he had accepted a request by President Michel Suleiman to stay in office to allow time for talks on a way out of the political crisis.

SECTARIAN TENSIONS

The 19-month-old uprising in Syria against Assad has exacerbated deep-seated sectarian tensions in Lebanon, which is still scarred from its 1975-90 civil war.

Sunni-led rebels in Syria are fighting to overthrow Assad, who is from the Alawite minority, which has its roots in Shi’ite Islam. Lebanon’s religious communities are divided between those that support Assad and those that back the rebels.

Mikati sought in vain to insulate the country from turmoil in its larger neighbor, which has long played a role in Lebanese politics.

Sunday’s funeral march set off from Hassan’s Internal Security Force headquarters in Ashrafiyeh and passed the site of Friday’s bombing before reaching Martyrs’ Square, where he will be buried alongside slain prime minister Hariri.

Mikati himself said he suspected Hassan’s assassination was linked to his role in uncovering Syrian involvement in the August bomb plot.

Samir Geagea, a Christian political leader and critic of Assad, demanded that Lebanon suspend all security and military agreements with Damascus and expel the Syrian ambassador.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also pointed to a Damascus connection. “We don’t yet know exactly who is behind this but everything indicates that this is an extension of the Syrian tragedy,” he told French television.

“I think this is a part of what is happening in Syria and shows again how the departure of Bashar al-Assad is urgent.”

Hassan’s killing has already provoked unrest in Lebanon.

In the streets of Beirut and other cities on Saturday, gunmen and demonstrators blocked roads with burning tires.

In Tripoli, four people were wounded on Saturday by sniper fire on Jebel Mohsen, a neighborhood which is home to members of the Alawite faith. A pro-Hezbollah religious figure was killed in clashes in Tripoli on Friday, residents said.

Soldiers opened fire on a group who took over a road in the Bekaa Valley, wounding two people.

“The situation is fragile. I don’t know if this is the first in a series of attacks – history would suggest it is,” a Western diplomat said.

“Of all the people to go for, Hassan was the most dangerous target in terms of hitting Lebanon’s stability.”

Source: Reuters

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