Assassination deepens Lebanese political crisis

Anti-Syrian politician Pierre Gemayel's murder comes as Hizbullah campaigns to overturn the government.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon's industry minister and son of a former president, was shot dead here Tuesday, the first assassination of a major anti-Syrian figure in almost a year.

The murder of the 34-year-old minister is certain to further aggravate political tensions in Lebanon where the militant Shiite Hizbullah party is spearheading a drive to overturn the Western-backed government. Hizbullah has plans to hold street demonstrations as soon as Thursday to force new elections.

"Things are going to accelerate from now on and tensions will become very high. I can see deterioration of the situation," says Sarkis Naoum, columnist for Lebanon's An Nahar daily newspaper.

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Following the assassination, hundreds of angry and weeping supporters of the Gemayel family converged on the St Youssef hospital in the Doura suburb of Beirut. A steady stream of leading anti-Syrian politicians and journalists paid condolences to the family.

The Gemayels are one of Lebanon's leading political dynasties. Pierre Gemayel's grandfather, also named Pierre, founded the Phalange Party, at one time the leading Christian political body. His uncle, Bashir, was assassinated in a bomb blast in September 1982, days before being sworn in as president.

Speaking to reporters outside the hospital Tuesday, an ashen-faced Amin Gemayel, Pierre's father and former Lebanese president, called on supporters not to react with violence.

"I would like to ask those who loved Pierre to preserve the cause. We don't want to do anything instinctively," he said. "He was serving the cause and he died for Lebanon, for freedom and humanity and we should not tarnish his memory by any irresponsible acts."

But in Zahle, a Christian town in the Bekaa Valley, protesters chanted anti-Hizbullah slogans and blocked off streets. And in the Christian quarter of Gemaize, where support for the Gemayel family runs high, local residents were gloomy about the future.

Habib Moukheiber, a shopkeeper, says "We all have the feeling that we are heading back to war. What can we do? It's out of our hands."

The shooting follows the resignation of six pro-Syrian ministers from the 24-seat government, plunging the country into deep crisis. They resigned after talks among Lebanon's top leaders reached a deadlock over Hizbullah's demand that it and its allies be given a greater stake in the cabinet. Hizbullah says that unless the government yields, the pro-Syrian opposition will begin pushing for early parliamentary elections.

Under the Lebanese constitution, a government cannot function if one-third of the cabinet resigns or is incapacitated. The resignations of the six ministers last week and Gemayel's murder means that if another minister is removed, the government will fall.

A sobering reminder that that scenario is dangerously close to becoming a reality was delivered to Michel Pharaon, the minister of state from parliamentary affairs. Unknown gunmen opened fire at Mr. Pharaon's offices Tuesday just hours before Gemayel was killed. An assistant to the minister said no one was hurt in the shooting, which bore the hallmarks of harassment rather than another assassination attempt.

Gemayel, who was elected to parliament in 2005, was a leading figure in the "March 14 Coalition" named after a huge anti-Syrian demonstration on that day in 2005 that hastened the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. He is the fifth prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese to be killed since the murder of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who died in a massive bomb explosion in downtown Beirut in February 2005. The killings have been widely blamed on Syria, although Damascus has strongly denied any involvement.

"We believe the hand of Syria is all over the place," said Saad Hariri, son of the slain former premier, who heads the March 14 group.

Hizbullah, the dominant player in the "March 8 Coalition" of pro-Syrian parties, was expected to launch a series of antigovernment demonstrations Thursday, although there was some speculation that the rallies would be postponed in the wake of Gemayel's death.

Hizbullah was among those decrying the killing. Ahmad Melli, a member of Hizbullah's politburo, told Al Jazeera, "We strongly condemn and denounce this killing. It was carried out by those forces who want to harm the future of Lebanon."

Mr. Naoum, the newspaper columnist, said that the latest killing should act as a warning to the competing forces in Lebanon. "I think the first effect of what happened will be the adjournment of the demonstrations," he says. "I hope this [assassination] will put some wisdom in the minds of the March 8 and March 14 movements."

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