Senior Lebanese intelligence official Wissam al-Hassan, who led the investigation that implicated Syria and Hezbollah in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, was killed by a huge car bomb in Beirut on Friday.
The bomb, which exploded in a busy street during rush hour, killed seven other people and wounded about 80, officials said. The attack prompted Sunni Muslims to take to the streets in areas across the country, burning tires in protest.
Protesters blocked the streets in Sunni strongholds of the eastern Bekaa valley region, the northern area of Akkar, neighborhoods of the capital Beirut and in the southern city of Sidon.
Hassan was the brain behind uncovering a recent bomb plot that led to the arrest of a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician.
Ambulances rushed to the scene of the blast near Sassine Square in Ashrafiyeh, a mostly Christian area, as smoke rose from the area. It occurred during rush hour, when many parents were picking up children from school, according to Reuters.
Health Minister Ali Hussein Khalil called on all hospitals to accept the wounded from this “terrorist bombing.”
Several cars were destroyed by the explosion and the front of a multi-story building was badly damaged, with tangled wires and metal railings crashing to the ground.
Residents ran about in panic looking for relatives while others helped carry the wounded to ambulances.
An AFP photographer saw two apartment buildings devastated by the bombing in a narrow street near Sassin Square. One building was still ablaze as Red Cross workers evacuated bloodied casualties.
Balconies were torn off by the force of the blast, windows shattered and cars crushed by falling masonry.
“We heard a powerful explosion. The earth shook under our feet,” said Roland, 19, among a large crowd of army, rescue workers and onlookers at the scene.
Security forces blanketed the area.
Interior Minister Marwan Sharbel was at the scene of the first car bombing in Beirut since Jan. 25, 2008 when Lebanon’s top anti-terrorism investigator was slain along with three other people.
The explosion occurred at a time of heightened tension between Lebanese factions on opposite sides of the Syria conflict. The bomb exploded in the street where the office of the anti-Assad Christian Phalange Party is located.
Many Lebanese quickly raised the possibility the violence was connected to the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has sent destabilizing ripples through Lebanon for the past 19 months. Hassan was in charge of an investigation that exposed a bomb plot over the summer, leading to the arrest of a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician and charges against a top Syrian regime figure.
Syria and Lebanon share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, often causing events on one side of the border to echo on the other.
A military court has since indicted Samaha and Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks inside Lebanon. Mamlouk, who was appointed recently by Assad to head Syria’s National Security Bureau, was indicted in absentia.
The war in neighboring Syria, which has killed 33,000 people so far, has pitted mostly Sunni insurgents against President Bashar al-Assad, who is from the Alawite sect linked to Shiite Islam.
Tension between Sunnis and Shiites has been rumbling in Lebanon ever since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war but reignited after the Syria conflict erupted.
It reached its peak when former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni, was killed in 2005. Hariri supporters accused Syria and then Hezbollah of killing him - a charge they both deny. An international tribunal accused several Hezbollah members of involvement in the murder.
Hezbollah’s political opponents, who have for months accused it of aiding Assad's forces -- have warned that its involvement in Syria could ignite sectarian tension of the civil war.
The last bombing in Beirut was in 2008 when three people were killed in an explosion which damaged a U.S. diplomatic car.
However fighting had broken out this year between supporters and opponents of Assad in the northern city of Tripoli.