BEIRUT — A powerful bomb devastated a Christian neighborhood of this capital city of Lebanon on Friday, killing an intelligence official long viewed as an enemy by neighboring Syria and unnerving a nation as Syria’s sectarian-fueled civil war spills beyond its borders and threatens to engulf the region.
The blast, which sheared the face off buildings, killed at least eight people, wounded 80 and transformed a quiet tree-lined street into a scene reminiscent of Lebanon’s long civil war, threatened to worsen sectarian tensions. By nightfall, black smoke from burning tires ignited by angry men choked streets of a few neighborhoods in the city, which has struggled to preserve a tenuous peace between its many sects, including Sunni, Shiite, Christian and Druze.
Within hours of the attack, the Lebanese authorities announced that the dead included the intelligence chief of the country’s internal security service, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, spurring accusations that the Syrian government had assassinated him for recently uncovering what the authorities said was a Syrian plot to provoke unrest in Lebanon.
“They wanted to get him, and they got him," said Paul Salem, a regional analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center.
But if the attack was targeted, the blast was most certainly not. The force of the explosion left elderly residents fleeing their wrecked homes in bloodied pajamas and spewed charred metal as far as two blocks. Residents rushed to help each other amid the debris, burning car wreckage and macabre scene of victims in blood-soaked shirts.
It was the first large-scale bombing in the country since 2008 and was the most provocative violence here linked to the Syrian conflict since it began 19 months ago.
The attack threatened to inflame sectarian tensions by eliminating a figure, al-Hassan, a Sunni Muslim known for his close ties to fellow Sunni politicians who support the Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Imad Salamey, a political science professor at Lebanese American University, blamed Assad’s government and said the attack seemed designed to show Assad has the ability to destabilize Lebanon and threaten to embroil the region in chaos.
The Syrian government issued a statement condemning the bombing, quoting the information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, as saying, “These sort of terrorist, cowardly attacks are unjustifiable wherever they occur."