Lebanon mourns slain anti-Syria MP, crisis deepens

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BEIRUT, Sep 20 (Reuters) Lebanon mourned today an anti-Syrian member of parliament whose assassination plunged the country deeper into crisis and threatened to derail efforts to elect a new president.

Banks, schools and government offices closed a day after a car bomb killed Christian Phalange Party parliamentarian Antoine Ghanem and seven other people in Beirut in the latest of a series of bloody attacks on opponents of Damascus.

Ghanem was the seventh anti-Syrian figure to be killed since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Some Lebanese leaders were quick to blame Syria for the latest bombing. Damascus condemned it.

Ghanem's death cut the anti-Syrian coalition to 68 in the 128-seat parliament -- only three above an absolute majority of 65, whittling away at its leverage in the presidential election.

The latest bloodshed drew international condemnation with US President George W Bush, the United Nations and the European Union expressing horror at Ghanem's slaying.

Lebanese newspapers and politicians said the killing had set back efforts to reach a deal on a consensus candidate to replace pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, whose term ends in November.

Parliament is due to meet on September 25 to elect the new president, but the session will not go ahead without a deal between the anti-Syrian governing coalition and opposition.

Agreeing on a new president is seen as a step towards ending Lebanon's worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

POLITICAL FALLOUT The bomb in a Christian district of Beirut damaged efforts led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to reach a deal on the presidency, said Ali Hassan Khalil, a leading member of Berri's opposition Syrian-backed Amal movement.

''Unfortunately this experiment which we were leading ... was exposed to a setback with the assassination of the martyr Antoine Ghanem,'' Khalil told Lebanese television station LBC. The funeral of Ghanem, who was 64, is set for tomorrow.

Hezbollah said the assassination targeted ''the consensus that we seek''.

Berri had been due to meet Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir that day to discuss the presidency -- which in Lebanon's power-sharing system is reserved for a Maronite Christian.

Berri was then due to meet Saad al-Hariri, the leader of the anti-Syrian governing coalition.

Lahoud's term ends on November 23. Failure to agree on his successor could result in two governments and further destabilise Lebanon.

''An assassination threatens consensus and paves the way to a vacuum,'' read the headline in the pro-opposition al-Akhbar newspaper. ''Antoine Ghanem a martyr -- the assassination of consensus through the presidency,'' as-Safir daily said.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has asked the United Nations to help the government investigate Ghanem's slaying.

Reuters SKB GC1451

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