Angry Lebanese protesters storm government headquarters in Beirut after funeral of top intelligence official


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The Independent Online

Lebanese soldiers fired machine guns and rifles into the air and lobbed volleys of tear gas at hundreds of angry protesters who are trying to storm the Lebanese government headquarters in Beirut.

The chaotic scene in Lebanon's capital come in the midst of a funeral for a top intelligence official who was killed in a massive car bombing that many blame on the regime in neighbouring Syria.

The protesters believe the government is too close to Syria and Damascus' ally in Lebanon, the Shiite group Hezbollah.

Earlier today soldiers carried two flag-draped coffins through a central Beirut square packed with thousands of Lebanese mourners who turned out for the funeral of the intelligence official and his bodyguard.

Soldiers set up road blocks and cordoned off Martyrs Square, where the coffins of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan and his bodyguard were brought for burial.

Mr Al-Hassan, 47, was 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, a Lebanese politician who was one of Syria's most loyal allies in Lebanon. He was among eight people killed in the attack on Friday.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora appealed for calm.

"The use of violence is unacceptable and does not represent the image that we want," Mr Saniora said in a televised address. "We appreciate the feelings of the people."

Several hundred protesters made it to within 50 yards of the entrance of Lebanon's government palace, with thousands more behind them. The gunfire appeared to push the crowd back.

Army commandoes marched into the streets wielding clubs.

The crowd had marched from Martyrs Square, where thousands of people had turned out for Mr al-Hassan's funeral.

"He was killed while he was defending his country," said Samer al-Hirri, who travelled from northern Lebanon to attend the funeral.

Even before Friday's bombing, the civil war in neighbouring Syria had set off violence in Lebanon and deepened tensions between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad's regime. The attack heightened fears that Lebanon could easily plunge back into cycles of sectarian violence and reprisal that have haunted it for decades.

France's foreign minister said it was likely that Mr 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.