Brigadier General Wissam al-Hasan, chief of the Intelligence Bureau of the Internal Security Forces, was killed on Friday in a car bomb attack in the Beirut district of Ashrafiyeh, state-run National News Agency reported.
The powerful explosion rocked a street adjacent to Sassine Square in Ashrafiyeh, leaving seven other people dead and 78 others wounded, in the first such attack in the Lebanese capital since 2008.
Hasan was close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and hostile to the regime in Syria. He had been tipped to take over as ISF head at the end of this year.
The ISF played a central role in the arrest in August of former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha, who has close links to Damascus and was charged with planning attacks in Lebanon and transporting explosives in collaboration with Syrian security chief Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi, meanwhile, condemned what he called a "terrorist, cowardly" attack, saying such incidents "are unjustifiable wherever they occur."
The incident has touched off painful memories of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and the political unrest that has troubled post-war years.
It occurred in a busy square of Ashrafiyeh as pupils were leaving schools and bank employees headed home.
State Prosecutor Hatem Madi said the car "was blown off dozens of meters (yards)" from where it was parked on a street off Sassine Square. Bomb experts told Agence France Presse the car was packed with 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of explosives.
Mangled remains of the car sat atop another vehicle amid a sea of devastation, broken glass and rubble.
Two apartment blocs were gutted, with balconies torn off by the force of the blast. Windows were shattered, cars below crushed by falling masonry and shreds of what used to be curtains dangled from upper floors.
Firemen rushed to put out flames and Red Cross workers braved the blaze in one building to evacuate bloodied casualties.
"We heard a powerful explosion. The earth shook under our feet," said Roland, 19, among a large crowd of army, rescue workers and onlookers.
Nancy, aged 45, was in tears as she reflected on having narrowly escaped death. "Had we not been out of the house buying medicines, we would have died," she said. "Our house was burned. Thank God we're alive.
A rescue worker, identifying himself as Rahmeh, said "this reminds me of attacks during the civil war and after the war."
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