Hussein Malla, Associated Press
BEIRUT — Lebanon's prime minister linked the massive car bomb that tore through Beirut to the civil war in neighboring Syria on Saturday, the latest signal that the crisis is enflaming an already tense region.
The blast Friday in the heart of Beirut's Christian area killed eight people, including the country's intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan.
The government declared a national day of mourning for the victims on Saturday, but protesters took to the streets, burning tires and setting up roadblocks around the country in a sign of the boiling anger over the bomb.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Saturday the explosion is linked to al-Hassan's recent investigation, in which he exposed an alleged plot by Syria to unleash a campaign of bombings and assassinations to sow chaos in Lebanon.
"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 following an emergency Cabinet meeting.
Lebanon's fractious politics are closely entwined with Syria's. The countries share a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, and Lebanon has been caught up in the fallout of from the civil war pitting Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces against rebels seeking to overthrow the regime.
The countries share a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, often causing events on one side of the border to echo on the other. Lebanon's opposition is an anti-Syrian bloc, while the prime minister and much of the government are seen as pro-Syrian.
Al-Hassan's probe over the summer led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Assad's most loyal allies in Lebanon.
Samaha, who is in custody, is accused of plotting a wave of attacks to spread sectarian violence in Lebanon at Syria's behest. Also indicted in in the August sweep was Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad's highest aides. He was charged in absentia.
Mikati also said he had offered to resign after Friday's car bomb, but the president asked him not to plunge the country into more uncertainty. Mikati said he suggested a national unity government but President Michel Suleiman asked him for some time to hold discussions with political leaders.
Mikati is facing deep political pressure from his opponents over the attack.
Friday's violence and subsequent protests threatened to plunge Lebanon back into a dark cycle of bombings and reprisal that made the country notorious during the 1975-90 civil war.
In the eastern town of Marj angry protesters tried to storm an office of the pro-Syrian Itihad group, but Lebanese soldiers pushed them away wounding five protesters, security officials said. They added that dozens of people who marched in protest in the border town of Moqueibleh came under fire from the Syrian side of the border forcing them to disperse without any injury.
The highway linking central Beirut with the city's international airport was closed, as well as the highway that links the capital with Syria, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
The bombing also raised fears that the crisis could lay bare Lebanon's sectarian tensions.
Many of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims have backed Syria's mainly Sunni rebels, while Shiite Muslims have tended to back Assad. Al-Hassan was a Sunni whose stances were widely seen to oppose Syria and Shiite Hezbollah, the country's most powerful ally in Lebanon.
Al-Hassan also played a role in the investigation of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a powerful Sunni figure.
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