BEIRUT -- A top Lebanese intelligence official was among the eight people killed by a car bomb that exploded Friday in a bustling central district of the Lebanese capital - igniting fears that spillover violence from neighboring Syria may inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
Hours after the mid-afternoon blast, which also left scores injured, authorities confirmed to the media that the dead included Wissam al-Hassan, intelligence chief for the Internal Security Forces. Al-Hassan was allied with a political bloc that is a fierce opponent of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
News of al-Hassan's death immediately signaled that the blast was a well-planned, professional assassination -- not a random bombing or a message attack, as some had initially speculated.
His killing signals a potentially perilous moment for Lebanon, with its weak central government and deep sectarian fissures. Many feared the attack could trigger new violence across Lebanon's sectarian fault line.
Lebanese protesting the attack took to the streets of several areas, burning tires and blocking roads. Gunfire was reported in the flashpoint northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, site of frequent clashes between Assad's supporters and opponents.
Al-Hassan was a loyalist of Lebanon's adamantly anti-Assad March 14 coalition, a leading Sunni Muslim-led faction said to have close ties to Washington. The March 14 grouping stands in opposition to the current Lebanese government, which is backed by Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and loyal ally of Assad. Leaders of March 14 have publicly accused Assad of trying to sow violence in Lebanon in a bid to shift attention away from his military campaign against armed opponents inside Syria.
Rumors swirled Friday that al-Hassan worked closely with the Syrian opposition, which has a strong presence in Lebanon. But there was no immediate confirmation that al-Hassan had any direct role with the Syrian armed groups seeking to oust Assad.
Video from the scene of Friday's bombing showed a panorama of chaos, as the injured were led away and people tried to determine the fate of loved ones.