BEIRUT — The funeral for Lebanon's slain intelligence chief descended into chaos Sunday as soldiers fired tear gas at protesters who tried to storm the government palace, directing their rage at a leadership they consider puppets of a murderous Syrian regime.
The assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in a massive car bomb Friday threatens to shatter the fragile political balance in Lebanon, a country plagued by decades of strife — much of it linked to political and military domination by Damascus.
The Sunni blood is boiling! the crowd chanted as hundreds of people clashed with security forces. More than 100 protesters broke through a police cordon of concertina wire and metal gates, putting them within 50 yards of the entrance to the palace.
Authorities responded with tear gas and several officers fired machine guns and rifles in the air. One plain clothes guard pulled a pistol from his belt and fired over protesters' heads. Then a roar of automatic gunfire erupted, sending the protesters scattering for cover.
It was unclear if the guards fired live bullets or blanks, but no protesters were reported injured by gunfire.
The killing of al-Hassan has laid bare some of Lebanon's most intractable issues: the country's dark history of sectarian divisions, its links to the powerful regime in Damascus and the role of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that dominates Lebanon's government and is Syria's closest ally.
Many fear the crisis could lead to the kind of street protests and violence that have been the scourge of this Arab country of 4 million people for years, including a 1975-1990 civil war and sectarian battles between Sunnis and Shiites in 2008.
Al-Hassan, 47, was a powerful opponent of Syria. He headed an investigation over the summer that led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Syria's most loyal allies in Lebanon.
He also led the inquiry that implicated Syria and Hezbollah in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
There were significant parallels between the life and death of Hariri and al-Hassan — both powerful Sunni figures struck down by car bombs at a time when they were seen to be opposing Syria. Syria denies any role in either killing.
Friday's killing also exacerbated sectarian tensions, which already were enflamed over the crisis in Syria. Many of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims have backed Syria's mainly Sunni rebels, while Shiite Muslims have tended to back Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.