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Mourners pay tribute to slain Lebanon minister

Written by: Staff
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BEIRUT, Nov 22 (Reuters) Hundreds of Lebanese mourners pressed today to touch the coffin of minister Pierre Gemayel whose assassination, blamed by his allies on Syria, stoked fears of more killings and a surge in factional violence.

Anger and apprehension gripped the country as it prepared to bury Industry Minister Gemayel, a Christian gunned down as he drove through a Beirut suburb yesterday. He was the sixth anti-Syrian politician to be killed in nearly two years.

Several prominent anti-Syrian leaders said his death was the work of Damascus and they expected the murders of more politicians who had spearheaded protests that led to Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005.

''It seems the Syrian regime will continue with the assassinations. I expect more assassinations but no matter what they do, we are here and we will be victorious,'' Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said.

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

The murder also heightened 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 regards as a pro-US cabinet.

Syrian envoys denied the accusations of its involvement in the killing and joined the wave of international condemnation.

US President George W Bush called Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to offer his support after the assassination and pledged ''to support Lebanese independence from the encroachments of Iran and Syria'', a White House spokesman said.

Bush also called Gemayel's father, former president Amin Gemayel, to offer condolences.

Gemayel's funeral will take place tomorrow and the anti-Syrian coalition has urged a large turnout.

The 34-year-old's body was driven from a hospital near Beirut to his hometown of Bekfaya, northeast of the capital, where hundreds of weeping mourners walked behind the coffin, waving white-and-green flags of his Phalange Party.

As the procession made its way to Gemayel's family home, women on balconies threw rice and flower petals.

MORE REUTERS SP KP2153

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