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Lebanon leader points to Syria in bombing, as protests break out

Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP - Getty Images

BEIRUT - Protesters burned tires and set up roadblocks around Lebanon on Saturday in a sign of boiling anger over the killings of a top security official and seven others, while Lebanon's prime minister said he suspected a Syrian connection in the bombing.

At a press conference, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said he suspected the bombing was related to the indictment in August of former minister Michel Samaha, a supporter of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, over a plot allegedly aimed at stoking violence in Lebanon.

"I cannot separate in any way the crime that took place yesterday and the discovery of the conspiracy against Lebanon in August," he said. 

Other Lebanese politicians have also accused Assad of being behind the attack, deepening fears that Syria's sectarian-tinged civil war is spreading to its neighbor. 

NBC News producer Paul Nassar reported an unusual calm had swept over Beirut. 

"The city is dead, absolutely quiet," Nassar, reporting from Beirut, said. "All the major shopping districts are closed -- this city would usually be brimming with activity, but now, nothing."

Nassar added that the bomb was an especially devastating blow to the city because it came on the cusp of the major Islam holiday Eid, which starts next weekend.

"Hotels that were close to capacity are now looking at 20 percent" of rooms full after tourists scrambled to cancel their reservations, Nassar reported.

In the eastern Bekaa Valley region, the Lebanese army opened fire on a group who were blocking a road to protest the bomb attack, wounding two people.

"The Lebanese army were trying to open the road and started firing their guns," a witness from the village of Bar Elias, told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Cabinet held an emergency meeting as the country's opposition called for Mikati to resign. 

The government declared a national day of mourning for the victims, who included Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of the intelligence division of Lebanon's domestic security forces. Dozens were wounded in Friday's blast in Beirut's mainly Christian Achrafieh neighborhood. 

Many observers said the attack appeared to have links to the Syrian civil war, which has been raging for 19 months. Al-Hassan, 47, headed an investigation over the summer that led to the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Syrian President Bashar Assad's most loyal allies in Lebanon. 

Samaha, who is in custody, is accused of plotting a campaign of bombings and assassinations to spread sectarian violence in Lebanon at Syria's behest. Also indicted in the August sweep was Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad's highest aides. 

Al-Hassan also played a role in the investigation of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with a massive truck bomb. A U.N.-backed tribunal has indicted four members of militant group Hezbollah, which along with its allies, now holds a majority in Lebanon's Cabinet. Hezbollah denies involvement in Hariri's killing and has refused to extradite the suspects. 

Al-Hassan's department also had a role in breaking up several Israeli spy rings inside Lebanon over the past few years, Lebanese officials said. 

Lebanon's fractious politics are closely entwined with Syria's. The countries share a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, often causing events on one side of the border to echo on the other. Lebanon's opposition is an anti-Syrian bloc, while the prime minister and much of the government are pro-Syrian. 

The civil war in Syria has laid bare Lebanon's sectarian tensions as well. 

Many of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims have backed Syria's mainly Sunni rebels, while Shiite Muslims have tended to back Assad. Al-Hassan was a Sunni whose stances were widely seen to oppose Syria and Shiite Hezbollah, the country's most powerful ally in Lebanon. 

Lebanon's top Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani, condemned the assassination, calling it a "criminal explosion that targets Lebanon and its people." He called for self-restraint saying that "the criminal will get his punishment sooner or later." 

Police and army troops sealed off the site of Friday's blast as military intelligence agents investigated what was the deadliest bombing in Beirut in four years. 

Sharbal Abdo, a Beirut resident who lives down the block from where the car bomb detonated, on Saturday brought his six-year-old son Chris and 12-year-old daughter Jane to see what happened the day before. They were both at school when the blast ripped through the area. 

"They were very afraid yesterday, and cried a lot late into the night," Abdo said. "Today I decided to bring them here and show what happened. They need to face this situation. It may be their future." 

On Friday, protesters in mostly Sunni areas closed roads with burning tires and rocks in Beirut, the southern city of Sidon, the northern city of Tripoli and several towns in the eastern Bekaa Valley. 

The highway linking central Beirut with the city's international airport was closed, as well as the highway that links the capital with Syria, the officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. 

Rafik Khoury, editor of the independent Al-Anwar daily, said the assassination was an attempt to draw Lebanon into the conflict in Syria, which has been the most serious threat to the Assad family's 40-year dynasty. 

"The side that carried the assassination knows the reactions and dangerous repercussions and is betting that it will happen. Strife is wanted in Lebanon," Khoury wrote. 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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