One of Lebanon's most senior security officials was killed yesterday in a car bombing which ripped through the centre of Beirut causing massive damage and raising the spectre of the bloody strife of Syria's civil war being imported across the border.
The death of Major-General al-Hassan, one of eight dead in the blast, will have significant international ramifications and is likely to be blamed on the Syrian regime. The head of internal security had been leading the investigation into former Information Minister Michel Samaha, a supporter of Bashar al-Assad, accused of plotting terrorist attacks.
General Hassan had also led the inquiries into the killings of former premier Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people in a bombing as his motorcade drove along the waterfront in 2005. No one has ever been tried for the assassination, but an UN-backed tribunal has indicted four members of the Shia Muslim group Hezbollah, which now dominates the Lebanese government and is allied to Syria's president.
Rafiq Hariri's son Saad, also a former premier, said yesterday's bombing was "a cowardly terrorist attack on all of Lebanon and all Lebanese aimed at destabilising Lebanon and its security".
The bombing was followed by outbreaks of violence in the Lebanese capital with roads being blocked by barricades at Tariq al-Jadideh neighbourhood, where pro- and anti-Assad groups have clashed in the past. There was also sporadic shootings in some areas and exchanges of gunfire in the northern city of Tripoli between Alawite supporters of the Syrian regime and Sunni opponents.
The toll from the bombing was expected to rise due to the severity of the wounds suffered by 78 injured. Initial examination by forensic teams indicated that as much as 30kg of TNT may have been packed into the car which detonated at Sassine Square in Ashafriyeh, a Christian area. It had been placed near two political offices, that of the 14th March Alliance and the Kataeb party, with a Maronite support base, who have both taken a stance against the Assad regime.
The Lebanese government held emergency security talks in the evening with a cabinet meeting due today. Prime Minister Najib Mikati declared those responsible will be found and punished.
For many the attack brought back memories of Lebanon's bloody past with its sectarian strife and there were fears that it was being drawn into the increasingly violent conflict next door. Nadim Gemayel, an MP with the Kataeb party, had no doubt about who was to blame. "The Syrian regime is collapsing and trying to move its crisis to Lebanon," he said.
Michel Pharaon, of 14th March Alliance, said Ashafriyeh, an affluent and liberal district which has been portrayed as a symbol of Lebanon's progress since the days of its own civil war, was the real target.
It was the human cost rather than the realpolitik behind the blast which affected those caught up by it. Claude Masin stared at a burning building saying: "That was my home. There was no one home, that was lucky."
Lili and Ghaleb Nehme were sleeping in their flat backing on to the site when the bomb went off. Mr Nehme, 73, who was hit by flying debris, said: "It felt like a plane had crashed into the building."