Thousands of demonstrators set fire to the Danish embassy in Ashrafieh before rampaging through the largely Christian neighborhood, smashing car windows and shop fronts. Hundreds of Lebanese troops and riot police converged on the area, firing warning shots over the heads of the demonstrators as the protest slipped out of control. A fire truck was seized by the mob after the crew had tried to use a hose to disperse the rioters. Islamic preachers called vainly for calm as rioters stoned the nearby church of St. Maroun and ripped a metal cross from the entrance to the home of the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Beirut.
"I heard the noise of people approaching then saw soldiers and policemen running past us telling us to save our cars," says Joseph Ghantous, 40, a car accessories dealer. "I didn't know what was happening, so I moved my car and then I saw thousands of people running toward me bare-chested and wearing bandanas."
After the protestors had left, shaken residents of Ashrafieh, a normally peaceful residential neighborhood of traditional Lebanese houses, emerged from their homes to assess the damage to their cars and properties. Piles of glass littered the street and the air reeked of smoke, while firemen continued to pour water into the gutted and still smoking ruins of the Danish embassy. Embassy staff vacated the building last week in anticipation of protests. The Danish government has called on all nationals to leave Lebanon and Syria. Syrian demonstrators had set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus on Saturday.
Naji Korom, 24, says he saw hundreds of rioters moving along his street attempting to storm apartment blocks.
"I locked the front door of the building so they couldn't get in," he says. "We watched from the windows as they started smashing all the cars on the street. They jumped on my car and broke the windows with stones. There was nothing I could do to stop them. Why did they attack us? Why?"
Lebanon's interior minister, Hassan Sabaa, offered his resignation at an emergency cabinet meeting Sunday evening.
Thousands of Sunni Muslims from northern Lebanon had converged on Beirut in the morning, driving along the coastal highway in convoys festooned with fluttering green and black flags inscribed with "There is no God but God." Among the Sunni political and religious groups participating in the demonstration was Al-Ahbash, a Sufi-inspired Islamist organization that has close ties to Syria and has been linked to the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Grand Mufti Mohammed Kabbani, the highest Sunni religious authority in Lebanon, claimed that the demonstration was hijacked by "infiltrators" whose aim was to "harm the stability of Lebanon".
Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's Sunni Muslim prime minister, also accused provocateurs of stirring up trouble, saying "They came prepared for war," adding, "The demonstration was infiltrated by rogue elements who had brought with them tear gas and fireworks to cause trouble." Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper reported Monday that nearly half the 177 protesters arrested by police were Syrian nationals.
Relations between Lebanon and Syria have steadily soured since Mr. Hariri's murder in a bomb explosion a year ago, and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from its tiny neighbor. Many Lebanese blame Damascus for a string of bomb blasts, some of which have targeted leading members of the former anti-Syrian opposition.
Absent from the demonstration, however, were Syria's other friends in Lebanon, among them the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah organization that has previously mobilized its followers to demonstrate in support of Damascus. Hezbollah said in a statement that while it endorsed the right of Muslims to protest the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, "we reject threats to the security of Lebanon and against the rights and property of Lebanese."