Lebanon holds funeral for slain anti-Syrian MP

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BEIRUT, Sep 21 (Reuters) Crowds gathered in Beirut today for the funeral of an anti-Syrian Christian legislator whose assassination has fuelled tensions ahead of Lebanon's bitterly contested presidential election.

Antoine Ghanem, 64, was the target of a car bomb attack in east Beirut on Wednesday that also killed four others.

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

Ghanem's allies in Lebanon's anti-Syrian governing coalition blamed his death on Damascus, which condemned the attack.

Mourners assembled in the streets of east Beirut before the funeral at Sacre Coeur church in the Badaro district.

Like former Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, who was assassinated in November, Ghanem belonged to the Christian Phalange Party. Hundreds of supporters waved white and green Phalange flags outside a party office.

Ghanem's death means the ruling alliance of Sunni, Christian and Druze factions now has only a slim majority of 68 in the 128-member parliament against a Shi'ite-Christian opposition bloc that includes Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

Parliament is due to meet on Tuesday to elect a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, but the vote is unlikely to take place for lack of a two-thirds quorum, which could only be achieved if the opposing camps reached an agreement beforehand.

Late yesterday political sources said rival leaders held contacts to defuse a 10-month-old political crisis that has paralysed Lebanon's institutions, but it was very unlikely they could strike a deal in time for next week's vote.

''Things have not collapsed but more time is needed to ease tension. A compromise is still possible, eventually,'' said a senior opposition source.

Choosing a new president in the two months before Lahoud's term expires is seen as a vital step towards ending Lebanon's worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Failure to do so could saddle Lebanon with two governments and inflict further damage on its fragile political order.

REUTERS JK AS1317

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