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Middle East

Violence erupts at funeral of murdered security chief

Lebanese protesters break through cordon and march on premier's office in Beirut

Armed gunmen battled on the streets of the Lebanese capital last night after the funeral of an assassinated Lebanese spy chief descended into chaos, as the killing strained Lebanon's fragile political stability.

Security forces fired tear gas and bullets to disperse throngs of enraged protesters who attempted to storm the headquarters of Prime Minister Najib Mikati shortly after the flag-draped coffins of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hasan and his body guard – killed in a car bomb on Friday – were laid to rest in central Beirut.

Though the security situation downtown appeared to be largely under control by nightfall, fighting erupted in the suburb of Tariq al-Jadideh, where supporters and adversaries of the Syrian government clashed in May. The disorder soon spread with rocket propelled grenades fired in nearby Cola, a busy transport intersection, according to local news outlets.

With accusations that Syrian hands were behind the assassination and anger at the government's perceived closeness to the regime, the violence fuels concern that the country will not be able to insulate itself from the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

In an ominous reminder of the Lebanese civil war Sunni militias were reported to have set up checkpoints in the capital's southern suburbs, while militias exchanged grenades and gunfire in streets of the northern city of Tripoli.

The protesters in the capital, had been stirred up by politicians from the opposition 14 March bloc addressing the crowd the funeral, which effectively turned into a political rally. As the crowds were dissipating, a popular television presenter Nadim Koteich took to the microphone and called on the crowds to march on the prime minister's office.

Mr Mikati has offered to step down, but the offer was rejected by President Michel Suleiman, saying the power vacuum could cause Lebanon to slide into turmoil, a concern echoed by Western diplomats.

"We got within about 50 metres of the building and then they started shooting," said Sam Marouny, a 25-year-old engineer with the Lebanese Forces, part of the opposition bloc. "We are seeing the blood of our people spilled. What Syria is doing to us, the anger is eating us. This government is with them and they must go."

The ceremonies had begun sombrely, as the country's top officials gathered for a ceremony at the Internal Security Force headquarters.

The intelligence chief's wife and sons chocked back tears as eulogies were given by officials, including President Suleiman, who called on politicians and the government not to "provide cover to the perpetrator".

The coffins were then carried past the site of the devastating car bomb in the capital's upmarket neighbourhood of Ashrafiyeh, to Beirut's main square, where General Hassan will be laid to rest next to Rafiq Hariri, slain in 2005 in an assassination which has been blamed on Syria and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.