Lebanon minister shot dead, Hariri son blames Syria
BEIRUT, Nov 21: Lebanese Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, an outspoken critic of Syria, was assassinated near Beirut today, plunging Lebanon deeper into a crisis over ties with its dominant neighbour.
At least three gunmen rammed their car into Gemayel's vehicle, then leapt out and riddled it with bullets, firing at Gemayel with silencer-equipped automatic weapons at point-blank range in the Christian Sin el-Fil neighbourhood, witnesses said.
Ten bullet holes were seen around the window of the driver's seat of his grey car. The two front seats were soaked in blood.
The son of assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri blamed Syria for the killing, but Damascus condemned the murder.
Gemayel, 34, was rushed to hospital where he later died of his wounds. Television footage showed hundreds of angry and weeping family members and supporters gathering at the hospital.
Angry protesters in the Christian town of Zahle in eastern Lebanon blocked off streets and shouted slogans against Hezbollah bollah and Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun.
Gemayel's father urged supporters to remain calm and avoid retribution.
''I have one wish, that tonight be a night of prayer to contemplate the meaning of this martyrdom and how to protect this country,'' former President Amin Gemayel told reporters outside the hospital where the body of his son Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel was taken.
''I call on all those who appreciate Pierre's martyrdom to preserve his cause and for all of us to remain at the service of Lebanon. We don't want reactions and revenge,'' he said.
''HAND OF SYRIA''
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, whose father Rafik al-Hariri was killed in a suicide truck bombing last year, said from Beirut shortly after Gemayel was shot dead.
''Syria strongly condemns the killing,'' the official Syrian news agency SANA said. The Shi'ite group Hezbollah also condemned the ''low criminal act'' and urged an investigation.
Gemayel, elected to parliament in 2000 and again in 2005, is the third Lebanese anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated since former prime minister Hariri's killing in February 2005. Gemayel, industry minister, was a member of the Christian Phalange Party founded by his grandfather and 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.
The Christian Phalange party controlled one of the largest militias fighting in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.
Pierre, like his father and late uncle, was a strong opponent of the influence of Syria, who many Lebanese blame for the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri.
The Phalange Party called on supporters to show self-restraint and foil ''attempts to destabilise Lebanon''.
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 on Tuesday 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.