Lebanese protesters repelled by soldiers

Lebanese protesters were hit with tear gas at a barbed-wire barrier outside the government palace Sunday in Beirut.
Lebanese protesters were hit with tear gas at a barbed-wire barrier outside the government palace Sunday in Beirut.

BEIRUT — Lebanese soldiers lobbed tear gas and fired bullets into the air on Sunday as protesters attempted to scale a fence protecting government offices in Beirut after an emotional funeral for victims of last week’s massive car bombing.

More than 100 protesters broke through a cordon of concertina wire and metal barricades outside the government palace, moving to within 50 yards of the entrance.

Television footage showed crowds of mostly male protesters, some wearing masks and wielding sticks, facing off in the streets against camouflaged soldiers in riot gear. Clouds of tear gas wafted through the air.


No protesters were reported injured by gunfire, but several were overcome by tear gas, and the government’s media office said 15 guards were injured.

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Friday’s assassination of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, an outspoken opponent of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, threatens to upset the political balance in Lebanon, where much of the political and military leadership is dominated by Syria.

Earlier in the day, thousands of mourners from across Lebanon flocked to a central Beirut square for the funeral service, directing their anger primarily at Syria, which has been widely blamed for the fatal bombing.

Opposition political leaders had called for a massive turnout and ‘‘day of rage’’ against the Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies, who lead Lebanon’s fragile coalition government. In addition to Hassan, the bombing killed eight other people and spread fears that Syria’s worsening civil war is expanding across the border.

As the flag-draped coffins of Hassan and his bodyguard passed through the crowd gathered in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, mourners chanted angry slogans against Assad and against Hezbollah, Syria’s ally and the dominant force in Lebanon’s coalition government.


‘‘They killed Wissam, but there are 2 million Wissams,’’ said one 63-year-old woman. An elderly man said, ‘‘I swear, when Bashar falls, I’ll walk to Syria.’’

Sunni cleric Osama Rifai gave a fiery speech, telling the crowd to ‘‘take out their swords’’ and not ‘‘be like women,’’ the Associated Press reported. Lebanese journalist Nadim Qutaish also called on mourners to ‘‘storm the government headquarters!’’

More than 1,000 people marched the quarter mile from the funeral site to the government palace. Several hundred clashed with security forces, pulling down barricades and hitting the guards with the sticks from their flags and placards.

After about an hour of clashes, more guards arrived, along with scores of commandos, and blocked the protesters from advancing farther.

Hassan, 47, was a Sunni and a powerful opponent of Syria in Lebanon. He headed an investigation over the summer that led to the arrest of former information minister Michel Samaha, one of Syria’s most loyal allies in Lebanon.


He also led the inquiry that implicated Syria and Hezbollah in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Friday’s bombing near Sassine Square, the heart of Christian east Beirut, threw Lebanon’s government into crisis and seemed to worsen sectarian tensions that have already been accelerated by the Syrian conflict.

Anger has been growing for more than a year among Lebanese Sunnis against Hezbollah, the Shi’ite movement that dominates Lebanon’s government and is Syria’s closest ally. Syria’s conflict also pits a largely Sunni opposition against the Alawite-dominated regime of the Assad family.

Lebanon has been the scene of sectarian violence for years, including a devastating 1975-1990 civil war and street battles between Sunnis and Shi’ites in 2008.

On Sunday morning, Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman, attended a ceremony before the funeral where Hassan was praised for his patriotism.

Both the president and Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, Najib Mikati, have made clear that they believe Hassan’s death was a direct retaliation for his role in the August arrest of Samaha, who was accused of plotting sectarian bombings at the behest of the Syrian government.

But Hassan was also praised for his work in uncovering Israeli spy networks over the past several years.

Some mourners in Martyrs’ Square on Sunday directed their outrage at Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, who has been widely impugned as a traitor in his own community for his role in a government anchored by Hezbollah.

Mikati is a Sunni, but many fellow Sunnis see him as unwilling to stand up to Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite movement that dominates the government and supports Assad’s brutal fight against a 19-month effort to oust him.

The deaths of thousands of Sunnis in that crackdown have increasingly enraged Sunnis in Lebanon.

The country’s politics are further complicated by geopolitical wrangling. While the main Lebanese opposition has long been aligned with Washington and Saudi Arabia, the governing coalition is backed by Iran and Syria.

The location of the funeral service had great symbolic importance for Lebanese. Hassan was laid to rest next to Hariri, the former prime minister who was killed in a massive car bombing in 2005.

That bombing too was widely blamed on Syria, and the protests — and international condemnation — that soon followed led Syria to withdraw its tens of thousands of troops from Lebanon.

The mourners Sunday clearly hoped to trigger a similar awakening of popular anger at Syria.