Maj. Gen Wissam al-Hassan, who headed the Information Department of the Internal Security Forces, was among at least eight people who died in the mid-afternoon blast on a quiet side street near Sassine Square in the city’s mostly Christian Ashrafiyeh area.
The swift allegations that Syria was responsible stemmed from Hassan’s close association with the Sunni-led anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon and with investigations into bombings and plots that had exposed the role played by Syria’s Lebanese allies, including the militant Shiite Hezbollah movement.
“The one who assassinated Wissam al-Hassan is as clear as the light of day,” Sunni leader Saad Hariri told his Future television network, saying that he held Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible for the killing.
On Saturday, as the government declared a national day of mourning for the victims of the bombing, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati voiced support for the view that Syria was responsible, the Associated Press reported.
“I don’t want to prejudge the investigation, but in fact we cannot separate yesterday’s crime from the revelation of the explosions that could have happened,” Mikati said at a news conference after an emergency cabinet meeting.
Lebanon’s rival communites, which fought a bitter and complex civil war from 1975 to 1990, have been polarized by the Syrian conflict, with Sunnis supporting the rebels, Shiites backing the regime and Christians dividing their loyalties between the two sides.
After Friday’s killing, Lebanese braced for the fallout as angry Sunnis, some of them armed, took to the streets in several Sunni areas across Lebanon to protest the killing. Streets in the capital emptied and a brief gun battle was reported in Tripoli between Sunnis and members of the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs.
“There will be repercussions, they will be severe, and I’m afraid the Sunni community will not accept this,” predicted Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
Syria condemned Friday’s bombing as a “cowardly terrorist attack.’’ But anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon accused Syria of carrying out the attack to exact revenge against a troublesome rival. They suggested that Syria might also be trying to demonstrate the potential consequences of allowing Assad’s government to fall as it seeks to crush a 19-month-old uprising that has killed about 30,000 people.
The assassination came in a month in which the Syrian conflict has already spilled across the Turkish border, with the two sides trading artillery fire and Turkey dispatching fighter jets to intercept civilian aircraft bound for Damascus.