Lebanese minister assassinated in attack on convoy
BEIRUT, Nov 21: Lebanese Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, an outspoken critic of Syria, was assassinated near Beirut today, security sources said.
Gunmen opened fire as his convoy drove through the Christian Sin el-Fil neighbourhood, they said. Gemayel, who was in his 30s, was rushed to hospital where he later died of his wounds.
The car was riddled with bullets. Local television footage showed angry and weeping supporters gathering at the hospital.
The killing is certain to heighten tensions in Lebanon amid a deep political crisis pitting the anti-Syrian majority against the pro-Damascus opposition led by Hezbollah, which is determined to topple what it sees as a pro-US government.
''We believe the hand of Syria is all over the place,'' Saad al-Hariri, son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, said from Beirut shortly after Gemayel was shot dead.
Gemayel, elected to parliament in 2000 and again in 2005, is the third Lebanese anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated since Hariri's killing in February 2005.
Gemayel, a member of the Christian Phalange Party and industry minister, was the son of former President Amin Gemayel. His uncle Bashir Gemayel was killed in September 1982 after he was elected president during Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
Pierre, like his father and late uncle, was a strong opponent of the influence of Syria, who many Lebanese blame for the assassination of former prime minister Hariri.
Hariri's son Saad, who is parliamentary majority leader, interrupted a news conference to announce the shooting of Gemayel. ''They want to kill every free person,'' he said.
US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said it was a ''very sad day for Lebanon''. ''We were shocked by this assassination. We view it as an act of terrorism and we also view it as an act of intimidation,'' he said.
Anti-Syrian Christian leader Samir Geagea said on Friday efforts to topple the government could lead to assassination attempts on cabinet ministers.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said today his depleted cabinet was legitimate despite the resignation of six pro-Syrian ministers, and warned that any anti-government protests could turn violent.
With Gemayel's death, the resignation or death of two more ministers would bring down Siniora's government.
Pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies are preparing to take to the streets to topple Siniora's government, which they accuse of being allied with the United States, arguing that it has lost its legitimacy since Shi'ite Muslims are no longer represented.
The depleted cabinet last week approved draft UN statutes for a tribunal to try the killers of Hariri despite the resignations of the pro-Syrian ministers.
Many Lebanese blame Syria for the killing of Hariri in a suicide truck bombing last year. Damascus denies involvement. A UN commission investigating the assassination has implicated senior Lebanese and Syrian security officials.