- Associated Press - Sunday, October 21, 2012

BEIRUT — Lebanese security forces unleashed a barrage of gunfire and tear gas in central Beirut on Sunday to disperse hundreds of protesters trying to storm the government headquarters after the funeral of a top Lebanese intelligence official killed by a car bomb.

The speedy ignition of the protests demonstrated the flammability of the country’s divisive and sectarian politics. The protesters blamed the assassination on the government of neighboring Syria, and consider Lebanon’s current government to be too close to that embattled regime.

Many also chanted against Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that dominates the government and serves as the Damascus regime’s closest Lebanese ally.

As the battle raged, with protesters and security personnel pelting each other with hunks of concrete, metal bars and tear-gas canisters, former 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.

Even before Friday’s bombing, the civil war in Syria had set off violence in Lebanon and deepened tensions between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The assassination has laid bare how vulnerable Lebanon is to renewed strife, threatening to shatter a fragile political balance struck after decades of civil strife — much of it linked to Syria.

Sunday’s clashes erupted after the funeral for Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was killed with his bodyguard by a Beirut car bomb on Friday. Gen. al-Hassan, 47, was a powerful opponent of Syria in Lebanon.

He was buried in Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut near former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, another anti-Syrian politician who also was assassinated, in a truck bomb in 2005.

Syria denied any role in Hariri’s killing, but outrage in Lebanon expressed in massive street protests forced Damascus to withdraw its tens of thousands of troops from the country and end nearly 30 years of military and political domination of its smaller neighbor.

The scene at the funeral was faintly reminiscent of the huge, anti-Syria gatherings in the same square in 2005. But the crowd was far smaller than those after Hariri’s death.

More than 1,000 people walked about a quarter mile from the funeral site toward the stately, hilltop government headquarters.

But only a few hundred clashed with the guards, first tearing down metal barricades and hitting the guards with the sticks from their flags and placards.

The guards withdrew behind a tall barricade of concertina wire, which the protesters later broke through, putting them within 50 yards of the government headquarters.

A few guards fired shots, and one plainclothes guard pulled a pistol from his belt and fired over the protesters’ heads. Then a roar of automatic gunfire erupted, sending the protesters scattering for cover.

It was unclear whether the guards fired in the air or shot blanks, but no protesters appeared to be injured.

In a telephone call with Lebanon’s Future TV, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri urged his supporters to stop their attack. “We are peace supporters and against violence,” he said.

The security forces appeared woefully unprepared for the protest, and their numbers were smaller than those usually deployed for much less contentious rallies.

After about an hour of clashes, more guards arrived, along with scores of helmet-clad commandos carrying long sticks and nunchucks. They stood shoulder to shoulder across the road and blocked the protesters from advancing farther.

Unrest broke out elsewhere in Lebanon, too. Protesters blocked major roads in Beirut and in the north with rows of burning tires and briefly closed the country’s main highway to the south, the national news agency said.