Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) — The bomb that ripped through a calm and urbane neighborhood in the heart of Beirut on Friday killed a top Lebanese intelligence official, unearthing fears of a spillover from Syria’s civil war.
Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the chief of the Internal Security Forces Information Branch, was targeted and killed, Lebanese news media reported.
The attack killed at least eight other people and injured more than 90. It is not clear whether al-Hassan is counted in that death toll.
Al-Hassan is aligned with a political movement opposing Syria’s government and is head of the branch investigating Lebanese politician Michel Samaha, who is accused of planning attacks in Lebanon with two Syrian officials.
Andrew Tabler, a expert on Syria and Lebanon at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the bombing is “a message from Damascus to stay away from Michel Samaha and Syrian allies.”
Samaha is a controversial figure with close ties to Damascus. Al-Hassan’s unit recorded him planning attacks.
A military court accused Samaha of attempting to form an armed group to spread sectarian violence through plotting political and religious assassinations. Two Syrian security officers were also charged.
The bombing underscored a widespread belief on the street that it’s in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s interest to promote instability in Lebanon and elsewhere to turn attention away from the civil war in Syria.
There has been fighting in Syria near the Lebanese border. Clashes in Tripoli, Lebanon, between supporters and opponents of Syria’s government have erupted.
The car bomb rocked the main Christian area of Lebanon’s capital, a populous stretch replete with shops, churches and office buildings.
The massive blast created a crater of rubble near Sassine Square in East Beirut’s Ashrafiyeh district. The neighborhood traditionally has not endured this kind of violence, residents say.
Shortly after the blast, panicked and tearful residents poured out of apartments at the site, some carrying victims to ambulances. The impact left rows of mangled cars and charred buildings, and even shook the windows in CNN’s offices, about a 10-minute drive from the scene. At least one car was engulfed in flames, blackened wreckage littered the street, and windows were blown out.
As they gaped at the carnage, residents worried aloud that the blast could be a harbinger of a return to the fighting and killing that embroiled Lebanon over recent decades.
Enraged citizens in Beirut blocked roads and fired guns to protest the killing, Lebanese news reports said.
Lebanon is recovering from its own 15-year-long civil war that ended in 1990. Since then, Lebanon has been plagued by assassinations and sectarian tensions among Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and others.
A Lebanese political source who did not want to be named told CNN that it was 99% confirmed that al-Hassan died. “There is an unrecognizable body found, and they have found his personal belongings at the scene,” the source said.
Al-Hassan is aligned with the March 14 movement, the anti-Syrian regime coalition that emerged after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
That movement was key in forcing the withdrawal of Syrian troops, which had long occupied neighboring Lebanon and pulled out months after Hariri was killed.
Lebanese news media also said the car blew up 200 meters from the office of the anti-Syrian Lebanese Kataeb political movement, a Maronite Christian group. That group is part of the March 14 movement as well.
Shortly after the bombing, Syria condemned the attack as a cowardly act.
“Such terrorist acts are condemned and unjustifiable wherever they happen,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said.
Saad Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister and son of Rafik Hariri, condemned the bombing.
“The cowardly terrorist attack which targeted Ashrafiyeh today is an attack against all of Lebanon and all the Lebanese people. It is a cowardly act against the country’s stability and security,” he said.