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Lebanon mourns slain minister as new crisis brews

Written by: Staff
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BEIRUT, Nov 22 (Reuters) Lebanon began three days of mourning today for an anti-Syrian cabinet minister whose assassination, blamed by his allies on Damascus, has reignited his country's deep factional rivalries.

Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, a Christian, was gunned down as he drove through a Christian suburb of Beirut yesterday. He was the sixth anti-Syrian politician to be killed in nearly two years.

The assassination turned Lebanon's Independence Day today into a sombre occasion. All festivities, including a military parade, were cancelled.

The killing will heighten tensions between the anti-Syrian government and the pro-Damascus opposition led by Hezbollah, the powerful Shi'ite Muslim guerrilla group determined to topple what it sees as a pro-US cabinet.

The murder drew widespread international condemnation and many Lebanese politicians accused Syria of killing Gemayel and being responsible for the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria condemned Gemayel's killing.

''It is the destabilisation of Lebanon that is underway today. We must respond to this destabilisation with the greatest firmness, with courage,'' French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told France Info radio.

''Those who perpetrated and ordered these assassinations be held responsible for their crimes.'' The UN Security Council on Tuesday approved plans for a special international court to try suspects in Hariri's murder, but the tribunal has been a divisive issue between the rival Lebanese parties.

The action by the 15-nation Security Council, in the form of a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, will enable the plans to be submitted to the Lebanese government for its formal approval.

Gemayel was among cabinet members who voted last week to tentatively approve the UN plans submitted to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government.

His body was driven from hospital near Beirut to his hometown of Bekfaya, northeast of Beirut, where hundreds of sympathisers walked behind the coffin, raising pictures of him and waving white flags of his Phalange Party.

SOMBRE PROCESSION As the procession made its way slowly to Gemayel's family home, women on balconies threw rice at the coffin draped in his party's flag. Gemayel's funeral will take place tomorrow and the anti-Syrian coalition has urged a large turnout.

''It's an indescribable feeling,'' mourner Fadi Jalakh, 27, told Reuters. ''Those who killed him don't want the Lebanese to unite.

Anything after this is going to make things worse.'' Police investigating the murder said they had little to report.

Six mostly Hezbollah opposition ministers resigned before the vote on the UN tribunal, throwing the government into crisis and prompting a protest from Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, who called the cabinet action illegitimate.

''Pierre Amin Gemayel martyr of the international tribunal,'' Beirut's Al-Liwaa newspaper said in a front-page headline.

Following Gemayel's murder, the death or resignation of two more ministers would bring down Siniora's government.

Hariri's son Saad and his allies quickly accused Damascus of killing Gemayel in an attempt to derail the UN tribunal.

A UN investigation has implicated Lebanese and Syrian security officials in Hariri's murder. Syria denies any links.

Commentator Rafik Khouri wrote in the Christian Al-Anwar daily: ''The blood of the martyred young minister... covered the street and revealed that the danger facing Lebanon is even graver than the fears many expressed.'' Large demonstrations after Hariri's killing forced Syria to end 29 years of military presence in Lebanon in April 2005.

The assassination occurred after a devastating July-August conflict in south Lebanon between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, which accused the pro-US government of backing its opponents in order to weaken the group as a political and military force.

Hezbollah and its allies have threatened to take to the streets to topple Siniora's government, saying it has lost its legitimacy since Shi'ite Muslims were no longer represented.

A political source close to Hezbollah said yesterday's murder would force it to revise its plans and delay the protests.

REUTERS LL BD1511

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