Lebanon PM asked to stay after Beirut bomb

Najib Mikati offers to quit after opposition leaders accuse him and Syria of being behind car bomb that killed the country's intelligence chief, but president asks PM to suspend his resignation.

A woman mourns at a poster with an image of senior intelligence official Wissam Al Hassan during a protest against his killing, at Martyrs' square in downtown Beirut on Saturday.
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Beirut // Lebanon's prime minister offered to quit after Friday's car bomb in Beirut that killed the country's intelligence chief, but was asked to stay in office to prevent political turmoil.

The president, Michel Suleiman, asked Najib Mikati to suspend his resignation, Mr Mikati said yesterday.

Opposition leaders had accused Mr Mikati and Syria of being responsible for the attack in which Brig Gen Wissam Al Hassan and seven others died, and demanded that the prime minister and his cabinet step aside.

Mr Mikati was appointed in 2011 by a government led by Hizbollah, which supports Syria's president Bashar Al Assad.

After an emergency cabinet meeting yesterday, Mr Mikati said he would remain in office to "prevent a void or heading into an unknown".

Mr Mikati stopped short of blaming Mr Al Assad directly for the attack, but he said he suspected the bombing was related to the indictment in August of former minister Michel Samaha, a supporter of Mr Al Assad, over a plot aimed at stoking violence in Lebanon. Al Hassan had helped to uncover the bomb plot.

"A prime minister does not anticipate investigations, but quite honestly … I cannot separate in any way the crime that took place yesterday and the discovery of the conspiracy against Lebanon in August," he said.

Lebanese politics has long been split between the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition and the Hizbollah-led March 8 coalition. There are also splits along sectarian lines: the Shiite Hizbollah maintains close ties to Syria while the Sunni Future Movement accuses the Assad regime of assassinating the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri.

His son, Saad Hariri, was close to Al Hassan. Mr Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement that forms part of the March 14 coalition, said on Friday that the Syrian regime was behind Al Hassan's assassination.

Yesterday, the March 14 group released a statement saying Mr Mikati was "personally responsible for the blood of General Wissam Al Hassan".

Dozens of protesters marched a few hundred metres from Martyrs Square yesterday calling for the resignation of the government. They carried blue Future Movement flags, black Salafi flags and flags of the Christian Lebanese Forces, and chanted: "Come on, terrorist get out. Come on Hizbollah get out." By nightfall, all that was left behind were the white tents they had pitched to stage a sit-in.

While imams called for restraint, demonstrators in several Sunni areas around the country expressed rage by blocking roads and burning tyres.

Mr Mikati expressed similar sentiment yesterday, saying: "My people and my sect feel like they are being threatened."

Al Hassan's death has left many political and security concerns in its wake and added fuel to the rising Sunni-Shiite tensions. In Lebanon, the premiership must be held by a Sunni Muslim, the presidency by a Maronite Christian and the head of parliament must be a Shiite.

"The Sunni community sees itself as being directly targeted and its belief in the state is shaken," said Emile Hokayem, senior regional security analyst at the Middle East office of the Institute for Strategic Studies.

"Wissam Al Hassan and Ashraf Rifi [general director of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces] are seen as the protectors of the Sunni community. Mr Mikati is widely seen as a Sunni political cover for the other side."

A billionaire businessman, Mr Mikati has good ties with the Assad government and a stake in Syria's telecommunications sector. His government had adopted an official policy of political disassociation from the civil war in Syria.

But Al Hassan's killing has raised fears of instability and brought back painful memories of bombings between 2005 and 2008 in which several anti-Syrian public figures were assassinated.

"This assassination fits the pattern of earlier killings. It was a carefully planned ambush, probably relying on sophisticated surveillance over time," said Elias Muhanna, a Lebanese political analyst and assistant professor at Brown University in the United States.

"Lebanon's security institutions have been dealt a major blow. Wissam Al Hassan was a figure who had been in the cockpit for a long time, since even before the Hariri assassination in 2005."

Knowing that his life was in danger, Al Hassan had moved his family to Paris and he himself moved to an apartment in the predominantly Christian Achrafiyeh area, close to his offices.

Security sources said he had returned early on Friday from a trip abroad where he visited his family in Paris.

Gen Al Hassan, a Sunni, will be buried alongside Rafiq Hariri in Martyrs Square in Beirut today.

Saad Hariri called for a public gathering at the funeral.

* Additional reporting by Reuters