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BEIRUT – Lebanese security forces unleashed a barrage of gunfire and tear gas in central Beirut on Sunday to disperse hundreds of protesters trying to storm the government headquarters after the funeral of a top Lebanese intelligence official killed by a car bomb.
The speedy ignition of the protests demonstrated the flammability of the country's divisive and sectarian politics. The protesters blamed the assassination on the government of neighboring Syria and consider Lebanon's current government to be too close to that embattled regime.
Many also chanted against Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that dominates the government and serves as the Damascus regime's closest Lebanese ally.
As the battle raged, with protesters and security personnel pelting each other with hunks of concrete, metal bars and tear gas canisters, former Prime Minister Fuad Saniora appealed for calm.
"The use of violence is unacceptable and does not represent the image that we want," Saniora said in a televised address.
Even before Friday's bombing, the civil war in Syria had set off violence in Lebanon and deepened tensions between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad's regime. The assassination has laid bare how vulnerable Lebanon is to renewed strife, threatening to shatter a fragile political balance struck after decades of civil strife -- much of it linked to Syria.
Sunday's clashes erupted after the funeral for Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was killed along with his body guard by a Beirut car bomb on Friday. Al-Hassan, 47, was a powerful opponent of Syria in Lebanon.
He was buried in Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut near former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, another anti-Syrian politician who was also assassinated, in a truck bomb in 2005.
Syria denied any role in Hariri's killing, but outrage in Lebanon expressed in massive street protests forced Damascus to withdraw its tens of thousands of troops from the country and end nearly 30 years of military and political domination of its smaller neighbor. The scene at the funeral was faintly reminiscent of the huge, anti-Syria gatherings in the same square in 2005. But the crowd was far smaller than those after Hariri's death.
More than 1,000 people walked about a quarter mile from the funeral site toward the stately, hilltop government headquarters. But only a few hundred clashed with the guards, first tearing down metal barricades and hitting the guards with the sticks from their flags and placards.
The guards withdrew behind a tall barricade of concertina wire, which the protesters later broke through, putting them within 50 meters (yards) of the government headquarters. A few guards fired shots and one plainclothes guard pulled a pistol from his belt and fired over the protesters' heads. Then a roar of automatic gunfire erupted, sending the protesters scattering for cover.
It was unclear whether the guards fired in the air or shot blanks, but no protesters appeared to be injured.
In a telephone call with Lebanon's Future TV, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri urged his supporters to stop their attack.
"We are peace supporters and against violence," he said.
The security forces appeared woefully unprepared for the protest and their numbers were smaller than those usually deployed for much less contentious rallies.
After about an hour of clashes, more guards arrived, along with scores of helmet-clad commandos carrying long sticks and nun chucks. They stood shoulder to shoulder across the road and blocked the protesters from advancing further.
Unrest broke out elsewhere in Lebanon, too. Protesters blocked major roads in Beirut and in the north with rows of burning tires and briefly closed the country's main highway to the south, the national news agency said.
Clashes broke out in the northern city of Tripoli, too, with residents of two neighborhoods that support opposite sides in Syria's civil war exchanging gunfire.
Security officials have said six others were also killed in the car bomb on Friday, and scores were wounded. But Lebanon's National News Agency said on Sunday that the final toll death toll was three, al-Hassan, his guard and a civilian woman.
The discrepancy could not be explained, though security officials said the other five victims were counted based parts of their bodies found at the blast site.
Al-Hassan headed an investigation over the summer that led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, a Lebanese politician who was one of Syria's most loyal allies in Lebanon.
"He was killed while he was defending his country," said Samer al-Hirri, who traveled from northern Lebanon to attend the funeral.
France's foreign minister said it was likely that Assad's government had a hand in the assassination. Laurent Fabius told Europe-1 radio that while it was not fully clear who was behind the attack, it was "probable" that Syria played a role.
"Everything suggests that it's an extension of the Syrian tragedy," he said.
Sunday's protests quickly overshadowed the stately funeral held in downtown Beirut for al-Hassan and his bodyguard.
Before the funeral, giant posters of al-Hassan were set up around Beirut calling him a "martyr of sovereignty and independence."
Thousands of mourners packed central Martyrs Square as soldiers carried in two flag-draped coffins.
"We came for Lebanon's future to show that we will not be scared," said mourner Rama Fakhouri, an interior designer. Many chanted that al-Hassan was a "martyr" who was struck down while trying to protect Lebanon.
TV footage showed al-Hassan's wife Anna, his two sons, Majd and Mazen, and his parents, shedding tears near his coffin.
But the mood quickly changed. At one point, a Sunni cleric named Osama Rifai gave a fiery speech, telling the crowd not to "be like women" and "take out their swords." Lebanese journalist Nadim Qutaish called on the thousands of mourners to "storm the government headquarters."
Both men's comments were carried live on TV, and crowds of protesters approached the government headquarters soon after.
Al-Hassan's killing has set off a new round of political wrangling in Lebanon.
Before the clashes, former Prime Minister Fuad Saniora called on Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign and described his Cabinet as the "government of assassination."
"Staying in your post means that you approve of what happened," he said, adding that al-Hassan's killers "had domestic help." A member of Mikati's Cabinet, Ahmad Karami, told the LBC TV station that the prime minister "is not clinging to the post but will not resign under pressure because of the chaos in the country."
Many of Lebanon's Sunnis see Mikati's government as too close to Syria and Assad regime, which is dominated by the Alawites -- an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Some Lebanese also see al-Hassan's killing and Sunday's violence as an extension of Syria's civil war into Lebanon. While Lebanon's Sunnis have largely backed the uprising, many others, especially Shiite Hezbollah, have stood by Assad.
For the protesters, the connection was clear.
"The Syrian regime started a war against us and we will fight this battle until the end," said protester Anthony Labaki, a 24-year-old physiotherapist.
For years after Syria's 2005 pullout from Lebanon, there was a string of attacks on anti-Syrian figures in the country with impunity. Assad managed to maintain his influence in Lebanon in the years afterward through Hezbollah and other allies.
Samaha, the former minister arrested in al-Hassan's investigation, remains in custody. He is accused of plotting a wave of attacks in Lebanon at Syria's behest.
Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad's most senior aides, was indicted in absentia in the August sweep that saw Samaha arrested. Samaha's arrest was an embarrassing blow to Syria, which has long acted with impunity in Lebanon.