Syria denied involvement in a Beirut car bombing that killed eight people on Friday, including Lebanese intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan.
Lebanon has stepped up security ahead of the funeral for Hassan, scheduled for Sunday, for fear of possible public unrest in reaction to his killing.
The Iranian FARS news agency on Sunday quoted Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Moghaddasi in an interview with the Al Manar TV network as saying that his country had no hand in the deadly bombing that shook the Lebanese capital.
Syria’s Moghaddasi dismissed the accusations that Damascus was behind the bombing as “baseless and unfounded” and reiterated Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi’s earlier condemnation of the incident as a “terrorist, cowardly” attack.
The car bombing struck Beirut’s mainly Christian Achrafieh neighborhood and also wounded dozens of people, including children
On Saturday, Lebanese Prime Minister Nijab Mikati pointed an accusing finger at Syria for orchestrating the attack, which he said was linked to Hassan’s high-profile investigation this summer that uncovered what authorities called a plot by Syria to provoke chaos in Lebanon with bombings and assassinations.
“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,” he said.
The probe was an embarrassing blow to Syria, which has long acted with impunity in Lebanon.
Hassan, a brigadier general, was killed along with seven others Friday in the powerful car bomb, which sparked rioting across the country on Saturday as public anger over Syrian influence in the country rose to the surface. Opposition activists called for a second day of rage on Sunday to protest the bombing.
On Sunday Lebanese security forces began setting up roadblocks and cordoned off Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square in preparation for the public funeral for Hassan.
Hassan will be buried in Beirut’s Martyrs Square next to the late Hariri. Security was tight as thousands of people headed to the capital from around the country to attend the funeral.
Hassan’s body will first be taken to police headquarters for an official procession to the square.
Giant posters of Hassan were set up around Beirut calling him a “martyr of sovereignty and independence.”
Dozens of anti-Syrian protesters erected eight tents near the Cabinet headquarters in central Beirut, saying they will stay until Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, which is dominated by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its allies, resigns. Hezbollah is Syria’s most powerful ally in Lebanon, which for much of the past 30 years has lived under Syrian military and political domination.
“The Syrian regime started a war against us and we will fight this battle until the end,” said protester Anthony Labaki, a 24-year-old physiotherapist who is a member of the right-wing Phalange Party. He said the protesters will not leave the area until Mikati’s government resigns and those behind al-Hassan’s killing are uncovered.
Syria’s hold on Lebanon began to slip in 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an opponent of Syria, was assassinated in truck bomb along Beirut’s Mediterranean waterfront. Syria denied any role. But broad public outrage in Lebanon expressed in massive street protests forced Damascus to withdraw its tens of thousands of troops from the country.
For years after the pullouts, there was a string of attacks on anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon without any trials for those responsible. Assad has managed to maintain his influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah and other allies.