Lebanese troops halt street unrest

Calm has returned to the streets of Lebanon's capital after troops launched a major security operation to quell fighting touched off by the assassination of a top anti-Syrian intelligence chief.

The country's police chief released details of the investigation into the killing of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, describing a carefully planned car bombing that targeted the officer as he was moving about Beirut in secret.

Many in Lebanon blame Syria for the killing. Damascus has intervened heavily in Lebanese affairs and is blamed for the deaths of many prominent critics. Gen. Al-Hassan was a Sunni who challenged Syria and its powerful Lebanese ally, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Seven people have died in clashes between pro- and anti-Syria factions sparked by the Friday assassination.

Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi said Gen. al-Hassan was assassinated outside one of his secret offices which he used to meet informants. He was driving an unarmoured rented car for camouflage. Gen. Al-Hassan was one of Lebanon's most secretive figures, and until his death many Lebanese did not know what he looked like.

"The martyr Wissam had an appointment in this office and it seems he was watched," Gen. Rifi said, adding that the booby-trapped car went off as the car was passing slowly by through the narrow street. The secret office in the predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Achrafieh is few hundred yards from the heavily-fortified police headquarters where Gen. al-Hassan spent most of his time while in Lebanon.

The circumstances were similar to two other assassinations of Damascus critics: the 2005 killing of newspaper editor and MP Gibran Tueni and the 2007 death of Christian MP Antoine Ghanem from the right-wing Phalange Party. Both died in car bomb blasts shortly after returning to Lebanon from abroad, in secret.

The assassination has dramatically escalated political tensions and sparked violence between supporters of Syrian president Bashar Assad and his opponents. Lebanon and Syria share similar sectarian divides that have fed tensions in both countries. Most of Lebanon's Sunnis have backed Syria's mainly Sunni rebels, while Lebanese Shiites tend to back Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shiite Islam.