BEIRUT: A top Lebanese security official opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad was killed Friday in a car bomb in Beirut, which also claimed the lives of seven others, security sources told The Daily Star.
Maj. Gen. Wissam Hasan, the head of the police’s Information Branch, was the target of the mid-afternoon attack that ripped through the Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh, the sources said.
The blast, the first car bomb in Beirut since 2008, occurred at 2.50 p.m. on Ibrahim Monzer Street as workers left their offices and students finished school in the busy, mainly Christian district.
Hasan, 47, headed Lebanon’s Information Branch, which recently uncovered a bomb plot allegedly involving a former Lebanese minister close to Syrian President Bashar Assad and a top Syrian official.
Hasan was also close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and played a key role in the probe of the assassination of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Leading officials in the March 14 movement as well as the Progressive Socialist Party accused Assad of being behind Hasan’s killing while Damascus denounced the attack.
“[The one] who assassinated Wissam Hasan is as clear as the light of day and I, Saad Rafik Hariri, vow not to remain silent over this crime,” he told Future Television in a phone interview.
Asked to identify who he was accusing, Hariri, who described Hasan as friend to his family, said: "Bashar Hafez Assad."
Before news of Hasan’s killing, Hariri described the car bombing as an “act of terror.”
The blast ripped through a narrow street lined with apartment buildings, only 100 meters from the main offices of the Kataeb Party and about 300 meters from the March 14 headquarters.
“I was sitting in my office with a client and the entire balcony fell,” one man, who suffered minor wounds, told The Daily Star. “My mother and sister were hospitalized because they were in the building that was badly damaged by the car bomb,” he added.
Mario Saaid, owner of a hair salon in the mainly residential Traboulsi building, the primary structure to be hit, said: "It was like Hiroshima; when I came out, the cars were damaged, people were screaming, and there was black smoke everywhere.”
According to preliminary examinations by Lebanese Army explosive experts, the car was rigged with 30 kilograms of TNT, which left a large crevice in the road where several parked cars were destroyed.
The bombing comes at a time when Lebanon has increasingly felt the repercussions of the crisis in neighboring Syria.
PSP chief MP Walid Jumblatt, Assad’s fiercest critics in Lebanon, said Assad was behind Hasan’s killing.
"Just as Bashar has burned Syria, he seeks to burn its environs,” the PSP chief told a local TV station, adding that the only means of confronting Assad was via politics.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi condemned the car bombing.
“These sorts of terrorist, cowardly attacks are unjustifiable wherever they occur,” Syria’s SANA state news agency quoted him as saying.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the government was on a state of alert to determine the circumstances surrounding the attack.
Hasan, who hailed from Btouratji, north Lebanon, was accompanied by a driver who was also killed in the blast, security sources said.
The Internal Security Forces identified the driver as 48-year-old Ahmad Mahmoud Suhyuni, a sergeant major in the police.
Angered by the news of Hasan’s death, residents in north Lebanon, including Tripoli and Btouratji, blocked roads in the evening. Tensions were also high in Beirut’s Tariq al-Jadideh, where residents also burned tires.
At the blast site earlier in the day, residents in blood-soaked clothes could be seen making their way out of damaged shops and buildings. Elderly residents were carried out of their homes on people's shoulders.
Balconies were torn apart by the force of the blast and twisted metal and shattered glass littered the street.
Ambulances and emergency units transported the wounded to nearby hospitals, which called for blood donations.
A 17-year-old girl, who was bleeding as she recounted her ordeal, said two of her siblings, both under 10, were wounded.
“I was preparing food for little brother Joe when it went off and I found him on the sofa crying,” she said, adding that her sister who was also wounded was taken to Saint George Hospital.
Lebanese Force leader Samir Geagea, who survived an alleged assassination attempt earlier in the year, also blamed the killing on Damascus.
“The Syrian regime and its friends inside and outside [Lebanon are responsible]. Who else would it be?” Geagea told reporters in Ashrafieh hours after the explosion.
MP Nohad Mashnouq, a member from Hariri’s Future Movement, which supports the Syrian uprising, said the Ashrafieh explosion “is a message from the collapsing Syrian regime to terrorize the Lebanese.” – Additional reporting by Dana Khraiche and Annie Slemrod.