Calm returns to Beirut as troops launch operation

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BEIRUT — Calm returned to the streets of Lebanon’s capital Tuesday, a day after troops launched a major security operation to quell fighting touched off by the assassination of a top anti-Syrian intelligence chief.

The country’s police chief late Monday released details of the investigation into the killing of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, describing a carefully planned car bombing that targeted the intelligence officer as he was moving about the capital in secret.

Many in Lebanon blame Syria for the killing. Damascus has intervened heavily in Lebanese affairs, and is blamed for the deaths of many prominent critics.

Gen. al-Hassan was a Sunni who challenged Syria and its powerful Lebanese ally, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Seven people have died in clashes between pro- and anti-Syria factions sparked by Friday’s assassination. The blast, the deadliest in Beirut in four years, killed two people in addition to Gen. al-Hassan.

Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi told a group of journalists that Gen. al-Hassan was assassinated outside one of his secret offices where he used to meet with informants. He was driving an unarmored rented car for camouflage.

Gen. al-Hassan was one of Lebanon’s most secretive figures, and until his death, many Lebanese did not know what he looked like.

“The martyr Wissam had an appointment in this office and it seems he was watched,” Gen. Rifi said, adding that the booby-trapped car went off as Gen. al-Hassan’s car was passing slowly by through the narrow street.

The secret office in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Achrafieh is a few hundred yards away from the heavily fortified police headquarters where Gen. al-Hassan spent most of his time while in Lebanon.

He also said investigators had identified the car used in the bombing as one stolen a year earlier.

Gen. Rifi confirmed reports from Washington that an FBI team will arrive to help in the investigation in the next two days. FBI teams helped investigate several bombings since 2005.

A senior security official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said Gen. al-Hassan entered through Beirut’s airport using a fake name and after he reached his office, he sent his passport to the airport to be stamped.

The official said this could be one of the ways how it became known Gen. al-Hassan was in Lebanon.

The official added that Gen. al-Hassan was supposed to stay in Paris with his family for more than week to celebrate the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha that starts Friday, but it is not clear why he returned to Lebanon.

The circumstances were similar to two other assassinations of Damascus critics: the 2005 killing of newspaper editor and lawmaker Gebran Tueni, and the 2007 death of Christian lawmaker Antoine Ghanem from the right-wing Phalange Party. Both died in car bomb blasts shortly after returning to Lebanon from abroad in secret.

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