Mourners carry the body of Lebanese cleric Shaikh Ahmad Abdul Wahid wrapped in the Lebanese flag. Image Credit: AFP

Bireh: Mourners fired guns in the air as thousands poured into the streets yesterday in northern Lebanon for the funeral of a Sunni cleric whose killing sparked clashes in Beirut and raised fears the crisis in Syria was spilling across the border.

The Beirut street battles overnight killed at least two people and wounded 15, and were the most serious clashes in the capital in four years. The streets were calmer yesterday morning, but some shops remained closed and many parents kept children home from school.

The violence in Beirut's predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Tariq Jadidah erupted hours after Shaikh Ahmad Abdul Wahid and his bodyguard were shot dead at a checkpoint in northern Lebanon. Abdul Wahid was an anti-Syrian cleric.

Police commander Maj Gen. Ashraf Rifi told reporters that "things will be getting better." He said police and army forces sent patrols into Tarik Jadidah to "reassure the people."

Authorities braced for the possibility of more violence in the north, where Abdul Wahid was to be buried. Gunmen carrying automatic rifles shouted for the downfall of the Syrian regime in the cleric's hometown of Bireh.

The fighting underscores how the bloodshed in Syria, where President Bashar Al Assad's regime is cracking down on an uprising against his rule, can fuel violence across the border.

Die-hard groups

There is an array of die-hard pro-Syrian Lebanese parties and politicians, as well as support for the regime on the street level. There is an equally deep hatred of Al Assad among Lebanese who fear Damascus is still calling the shots here.

Thousands poured into a square outside a mosque in Bireh to take part in the funeral. The cleric's coffin, which was brought to his home, was covered with a Lebanese flag and a flag used by Syrian rebels. "Oh cleric, we want revenge against Nasrallah and Al Bashar," screamed the men who carried the coffin. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is a strong ally of Syria.