BEIRUT, Oct 19, 2012 (AFP) -
BEIRUT, Oct 19, 2012 (AFP) –
A car bomb blast in central Beirut on Friday killed a top security official linked to the anti-Damascus camp in Lebanon, where leaders pointed a finger of blame at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The rush-hour bombing in the predominantly Christian district of Ashrafieh, which drew international condemnation, killed seven other people and wounded 86, Information Minister Walid Daouk said, revising an earlier toll.
A government official said the intelligence chief of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, General Wissam al-Hassan, was among the dead — in one of the highest-profile killings since the 2005 murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri.
Hassan was close to Rafiq’s son, Saad, who is leader of the opposition and hostile to Assad’s regime. He had been tipped to take over as ISF head at the end of this year.
Both Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s Druze leader, charged that the Syrian president was behind the attack.
“We accuse Bashar al-Assad of the assassination of Wissam al-Hassam, the guarantor of the security of the Lebanese,” Hariri, who is also a former premier, told a Lebanese TV station.
Jumblatt, a longtime critic of Damascus, said: “I openly accuse Bashar al-Assad and his regime of killing Wissam al-Hassan.”
Ahead of the accusations, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi condemned what he called a “terrorist, cowardly” attack, saying such incidents were “unjustifiable wherever they occur.”
Opposition politician Samir Geagea said Hassan “moved around with exceptional security measures” and had sent his wife and children to Paris because he “knew he was a target.”
The ISF played a central role in the arrest in August of former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha, who has close links to Damascus and was charged with planning attacks in Lebanon and transporting explosives.
The agency was also deeply involved in seeking the arrest of those responsible for a host of attacks and assassinations between 2005 and 2008, starting with the Hariri assassination.
Friday’s blast occurred only 200 metres (yards) from the headquarters of the Christian party, the Phalange, which is also anti-Damascus.
No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, but Phalange MP Nadim Gemayel quickly accused former power broker Syria of orchestrating it.
“This regime, which is crumbling, is trying to export its conflict to Lebanon,” he charged.
Following the news that Hassan, a Sunni Muslim, had been killed, angry Sunnis set fire to tyres and blocked the road from the northern city of Tripoli to the Syrian border, an AFP journalist witnessed.
The United States and France condemned the attack.
“There is no justification for such violence,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “It was a car bomb. We have no reason to believe it was not terrorism. We condemn this act of terrorism.”
French President Francois Hollande urged Lebanese officials to protect their country from “all attempts at destabilisation.”
The incident has touched off painful memories of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war and the political unrest that has troubled post-war years, much of it linked to Syrian influence in the country.
It occurred in a busy square as pupils were leaving schools and bank employees headed home.