Leading Syria critic is killed in Lebanon

Death of Cabinet member Gemayel could stir unrest

November 22, 2006|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A Christian Cabinet minister who had stood against Syrian interference in Lebanon was shot dead yesterday, stunning and infuriating a war-haunted nation and heightening the threat of unrest.

Pierre Gemayel, the 34-year-old minister of industry, was gunned down as he drove through a crowded intersection in the predominantly Christian outskirts of the capital. The killers rammed his car from behind, walked up to the door and shot him, according to witnesses quoted in local news reports. It was 3:30 in the afternoon.

The assassination dealt a blow to Lebanese leaders struggling to maintain control. The government already was fragile after a mass resignation of opposition Cabinet ministers.

Gemayel's assassination was the latest attack on Lebanese leaders critical of Syria. And to many Lebanese, the attack was also a symbolically loaded strike against the Christian community. Gemayel was political heir to one of the most influential and controversial Christian dynasties in Lebanon; his family name was shorthand for Christian claims on Lebanese politics.

As condemnations poured in from Washington, Europe and even Syria, grave-faced Lebanese leaders took to the airwaves to encourage their people to stay calm - and out of the streets.

But the assassination stirred rage as the threat of street fights already hangs over Lebanon. As word of Gemayel's death raced through the Christian neighborhoods, men poured into the darkening streets, chanting obscene slogans against Hezbollah, setting fire to garbage bins and attacking a Syrian laborer and a Syrian taxi.

"I hit him and I don't care. What are we waiting for?" a young man shouted in the Christian neighborhood of Achrifiyeh; he was defending the beating given to a Syrian laborer. "I hit him, and anybody who defends Syria is a dog like him."

The other men quieted him down and quickly led him away.

"The hand of killers will not terrorize us. Murderers will not control the destiny of Lebanon," Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said. "I call on all Lebanese to unite and cling together, to defend the security and safety of their nation and be careful of this conspiracy to create strife."

Even before yesterday's attack, Lebanon had been embroiled in a crisis over who should rule the country. The Shiite Muslim party Hezbollah and its allies among the Christians have been demanding a greater stake. Hezbollah accused the "anti-Syria" bloc - including Gemayel, other Christians, Sunnis and Druze - of ruling unconstitutionally and hijacking the country for U.S. and European interests.

For its part, the anti-Syria bloc has decried Hezbollah's play for power as a menace to Lebanese independence. Hezbollah, the country's most popular Shiite party, has long been backed by Syria and Iran. Some Lebanese are convinced that Syria is working through Hezbollah to take control.

Just last week, Hezbollah and its allies quit the Cabinet, declaring the remaining government illegitimate. Hezbollah chief Sayed Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly has threatened to stage massive street protests to topple the government; many fear the gatherings could degenerate into street fights that would further destabilize a fragile nation.

Fueled by fresh anger over Gemayel's death, the anti-Syria bloc might end up beating Hezbollah into the streets. The coalition called upon mourners to turn out en masse for Gemayel's funeral today; the death march will double as a pointed political display.

According to Lebanese law, if one more minister quits, dies or is otherwise unable to work, the Cabinet would lose its right to govern. Some analysts warned that those seeking to knock the anti-Syria coalition out of power might conspire to eliminate enough ministers to force the downfall of Saniora's U.S.-backed government.

"This plot started with the resignation of the ministers," said Antoine Haddad, a political analyst affiliated with the anti-Syrian bloc. "It's a bloody game. It's a criminal game."

Patrick Haenni, a Beirut-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, warned that more political violence could soon follow.

"We are not far away from the quota that should cause the government to fall," he said. "The continuation of political assassinations should be considered as a possible scenario."

The Bush administration viewed the killing as terrorism and "an act of intimidation," said Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. President Bush accused Syria and Iran of trying to undermine Lebanon's government, and he said the killing showed "yet again the viciousness of those who are trying to destabilize that country."

Yesterday, one-time President Amin Gemayel, his face pale and slack, made his way slowly through hordes of mourners toward a hospital. His slain son's corpse was inside, and Gemayel's face looked as if it had been washed blank with shock. His head tilted and his eyes falling shut, he paused to plead for calm.

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