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Sun 21 Oct 2012 09:54 AM

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Thousands gather for Beirut funeral of slain official

Opposition calls for mass turnout to funeral of Wissam al-Hassan, who was killed in Friday's explosion

Thousands gather for Beirut funeral of slain official
Lebanese rescue workers and firefighters inspect the site of an explosion in Beiruts Christian neighbourhood of Ashrafieh on October 19, 2012. (Getty Images)

Thousands of people started gathering in central Beirut on Sunday for the funeral of slain intelligence officer Wissam al-Hassan, a ceremony likely to become a rally against Syrian authorities.

Hassan, who uncovered an alleged Syrian bomb plot inside Lebanon two months ago, died in a car bomb blast that killed seven other people and wounded 80 in Beirut's Ashrafiyeh district on Friday.

Lebanese politicians have accused Syria's leadership of having a role in the assassination, which deepened fears the civil war there is spreading beyond its borders.

Soldiers deployed in force across Beirut in preparation for the funeral, with squads standing guard at road junctions and stopping cars from entering the downtown area.

A mosque in central Martyrs' Square, where Hassan is due to be buried, broadcast prayers for the dead early on Sunday.

Protesters had blocked roads with burning tyres and gunmen took to the streets of Beirut and Tripoli on Saturday. In the evening small groups of protesters waving Lebanese flags marched to the government offices.

But the city was otherwise quiet overnight as residents stayed at home fearing more violence and jeeps loaded with soldiers cruised the streets. Even the night-life areas of Hamra and Gemmayzeh were subdued, with many restaurants closed.

Former prime minister Saad al-Hariri accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of being behind the bombing and Lebanon's political opposition demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose government includes Syria's Shi'ite Muslim ally Hezbollah.

The death of Hassan, a Sunni Muslim from the northern city of Tripoli who was close to the powerful Hariri political clan, has inflamed Sunni anger.

Deep-seated sectarian tensions in Lebanon, which fought a civil war from 1975 to 1990, have been exacerbated by the conflict in Syria. Sunni-led rebels in Syria are fighting to overthrow Assad, who is from the Alawite minority which has its roots in Shi'ite Islam.

Lebanon's religious communities are divided between those that support Assad and those that back the rebels, despite Mikati's policy of "dissociation" which sought in vain to insulate the country from turmoil in its larger neighbour.

Sunday's funeral march will set off from Hassan's Internal Security Force headquarters in Ashrafiyeh, passing the site of Friday's bombing before reaching Martyrs' Square where he will be buried alongside Hariri's father Rafik, killed in a 2005 bombing on the Beirut seafront.

Saad Hariri called for a mass turn-out for the funeral.

"Every one of you is personally invited tomorrow to Martyr's Square to the prayers for Wissam al-Hassan," he said in a statement broadcast on Lebanese television on Saturday.

Samir Geagea, a Christian political leader and critic of Assad, demanded that Lebanon suspend all security and military agreements with Damascus and expel the Syrian ambassador.

Mikati said on Saturday he wanted to resign to make way for a "consensus government" but had accepted a request by President Michel Suleiman to stay in office to allow time for talks on a way out of the political crisis.

"The situation is fragile. I don't know if this is the first in a series of attacks - history would suggest it is," a Western diplomat said, referring to a wave of assassinations in Lebanon following the 2005 killing of Rafik Hariri.

"Of all the people to go for, Hassan was the most dangerous target in terms of hitting Lebanon's stability."

Mikati said he suspected Hassan's assassination was linked to his role in uncovering Syrian involvement in the bomb plot.

"I cannot separate in any way the crime that took place yesterday and the discovery of the conspiracy against Lebanon in August," he said.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also pointed to a Damascus connection. "We don't yet know exactly who is behind this but everything indicates that this is an extension of the Syrian tragedy," he told French television.

"I think this is a part of what is happening in Syria and shows again how the departure of Bashar al-Assad is urgent."

In the northern city of Tripoli, four people were wounded on Saturday by sniper fire on Jebel Mohsen, a neighbourhood which is home to members of the Alawite faith. A pro-Hezbollah religious figure was killed in clashes in Tripoli on Friday, residents said.

Lebanese soldiers opened fire on a group who took over a road in the Bekaa Valley, wounding two people, witnesses said. Rallies were also held in the southern town of Sidon.